Iford Arts has announced that 2018 is its last season at the glorious Iford Manor in Bradford-on-Avon, just outside Bath, and it will be hard to top the extraordinary atmosphere of the Harold Peto Gardens and in particular The Cloisters which provides such an intimate setting (just 92 seats) for any opera.
To open this very special season is a new Iford Arts and Opera della Luna production of Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 gregarious and irreverent operetta Candide, based on the notable 1759 Voltaire novella with a plot that is bonkers enough to lend itself extremely well to this medium. Opening on Broadway just ahead of his most famed work West Side Story, Bernstein’s changeable, haphazard score, drawing on Gilbert and Sullivan and American musical theatre, baffled critics by refusing to be pigeon-holed in the true opera category but has endured nonetheless due to some dazzling songs and arias including ‘The Venice Gavotte’, ‘Make Our Garden’ and ‘The Best of All Possible Worlds’, a tribute to the fact that Voltaire’s satire was inspired by the German philosopher Gottfried Liebniz who claimed the actual world to be the best.
‘Voltaire’ (musical theatre heavyweight Carl Sanderson) narrates the plot and introduces us to the residents of Thunder-tentronckh castle including Dr Pangloss (also played by the transformative Sanderson) who teaches his philosophy entitled ‘Optimism’ to the Baron’s (John Griffiths) two children Maximilian (the hilarious Chris Jenkins) and Cunegonde (the exceptional Tennesse-born Paula Sides). Also instructed by Pangloss is the maid Paquette (soprano Claire Watkins) and the Baron’s bastard nephew, Candide (charismatic tenor David Horton) who resolves to marry the beautiful Cunegonde only to be discovered by the Baron and thrown out into the snow – cue an amusing prop.
Rather than acts we have fast-paced around-the-world ‘chapters’ with leading man Candide on a quest to find his beloved, long-suffering Cunegonde who suffers the barbarity of rape and prostitution. Horton is a commanding Candide and fully engages the audience in his many colourful adventures, from unwittingly enlisting in the Bulgarian Army to almost getting his head blown off upon escaping, before travelling to locations including Paris, Vienna, Lisbon and Eldorado where he meets a wide array of characters and challenges.
Directed by Opera della Luna Artistic Director Jeff Clarke who celebrates Bernstein’s originality, this fast-moving work with some twenty-four locations, is nothing if not a spectacle and one of the most imaginative Iford production’s I’ve experienced. Each new scene is brought to life through choreography (Jenny Arnold) which succeeds in making the most of the small ‘stage’, flamboyant costumes (Wanda D’Onofri) featuring paper wigs and fluffy red onesies, well utilised props and Jeff Clarke and Elroy Ashmore’s ingenious central wooden platform disguising the fixed cloister’s well and adapted into various guises including a castle, an ale house, a ship and a Venetian bridge.
It’s important to note that this production leans far more towards opera/operetta rather than musical theatre due to the experienced operatic cast and some sublime performances highlighting Bernstein’s tremendous breadth as a composer, making it almost a tragedy that it will be seen by so few. Rosemary Ashe is simply marvellous as The Old Woman and Queen of Eldorado as is James (Peter Van Hulle), Candide’s loyal friend.
Also never failing to impress, Musical Director of Iford Arts, Oliver Gooch is just as entertaining to watch from the sidelines conducting the Orpheus Sinfonia, channelling every Bernstein nuance into a broad, gutsy sound that lunges from the powerful, comical and foot-tappingly melodic. The well timed thunderstorms in both acts, not to mention the torrential British rain pummelling the tarpaulin above added their own musicality and entertainment and made us remember what an exceptional venue The Cloisters really is.
The mountain finale, after Candide has decided that Cunegonde, no longer beautiful, is more interested in gold than love, and that ultimately ‘man is neither good nor bad’, is suitably dreamy and stirring with the foundation of a Utopian community offering him the happiness and contentment he has been searching for. We have come to expect an ambitious, one-of-a-kind, dressing-up-box style of opera from Iford Arts and Candide is more of a romp than usual. Dare I say that Iford Arts is the best of all possible worlds?
Performances of Candide at Iford Arts, Iford Manor, Bradford-on-Avon 26, 29, 30 May & 1, 2, 5 June 2018. For more information and tickets please visit the website.