The staging, by Canadian director Robert Carsen, has been running at the Th_ê¢tre du Chê¢telet in Paris since the beginning of this month. La Scala artistic and general director St_phane Lissner saw the December 26 performance there and decided not to bring it to Milan, according to reports from the Associated Press and Bloomberg News.
Most coverage of this story focuses on one particular scene, in which actors portraying George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi cavort on an oil-covered beach wearing swimming trunks and neckties resembling their respective national flags. While the episode makes for good headlines on wire service copy, it "was only part of the problem, and a small part," as La Scala spokesperson Carlo Maria Cella told the AP today.
The issue is the very free adaptation Carsen has made of Bernstein's original 1956 scenario and Hugh Wheeler's 1974 book (made for a Broadway revival). Where the Bernstein-approved versions made the Spanish Inquisition a stand-in for McCarthyism and for government repression of free expression generally, Carsen has added a French-speaking Voltaire as well as dialogue and characters in English meant to reflect current world events. "I felt we could parallel Candide's loss of optimism and the way the world has lost its optimism about an idealized America since the death of John F. Kennedy," the director told The New York Times earlier in December.
Thus the production opens with a giant television screen showing "Volt-Air TV," with happy 1950s families enjoying modern cars and appliances. The castle in Westphalia — here called "West-Failure" — where Candide is raised looks just like the White House, according to the Times; the chorus in the auto-da-f_ is dressed as a Ku Klux Klan mob; Candide escapes on an ocean liner called "France" — to New York, not Buenos Aires or Montevideo, and his adventures are in the US rather than South America. The five exiled kings whom Candide meets are transformed into Bush, Blair, Putin et al.
Carsen told the Times that Wheeler's estate gave him free rein to change the dialogue as much as he wished, though permission to change the songs' lyrics, written by seven different contributors, some now dead, proved too cumbersome to pursue.
All these changes, taken together, proved too much for Lissner and La Scala: this new Candide, company spokesperson Cella told the AP, "rather than being close to the original, is based on it to create a peculiar work."
"A show that can work well at the Chê¢telet in Paris with a certain type of audience may not suit La Scala, which has a past, a tradition, commitments, a role," he said to Bloomberg News. The Chê¢telet has a longstanding reputation for offering unusual repertoire in unconventional stagings, such as the multimedia/hip-hop production of Rameau's Les Paladins presented there in 2004 and again this fall. La Scala, on the other hand, is seen (in its own eyes and those of most of the world) as the great standard-bearer of Italian grand opera.
"It is not a value judgment," the AP quotes Cella as saying. "Carsen is a wonderful director who's made beautiful shows. It is an issue of compatibility with La Scala's programming."
Of the Bush-Blair-and-co. beach party, CBC News quotes the director telling the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, "I don't think that the Milanese audience can be offended or shocked by one scene. It is satire and it is theater." (He was speaking before the cancellation was announced.) "Candide is political, social, intellectual satire — or it is nothing."
The production had been scheduled to run at La Scala for nine performances in June and July of 2007; no replacement has yet been announced. Plans for a 2008 presentation of Carsen's Candide at English National Opera in London seem still to be in place.
Meanwhile, the Paris run — starring tenor William Burden and soprano Anna Christy as Candide and Cunegonde, French movie star Lambert Wilson as Dr. Pangloss/Voltaire and British musical theater diva Kim Criswell as the Old Lady — has its final performance at the Chê¢telet on New Year's Eve.