Controversial Staging of Candide, Canceled and Reinstated by La Scala, Opens in Milan

Classic Arts News   Controversial Staging of Candide, Canceled and Reinstated by La Scala, Opens in Milan
An updated staging of Leonard Bernstein's Candide that garnered headlines worldwide at the end of last year opened last night, with some changes, at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

Director Robert Carsen's production is a collaboration with English National Opera and the Th_ê¢tre du Chê¢telet in Paris, where it ran last December. St_phane Lissner, La Scala artistic and general director, traveled to Paris for the December 26 performance, and within two days he determined not to bring the production to Milan, saying that it was "not in line with La Scala's artistic program." His decision made news all over the globe, and about 24 hours later he reversed himself, announcing (after conversations with Carsen) that the La Scala run could go ahead, with unspecified changes made to the staging.

Just what those changes constitute has now been revealed, with the initial reports in English coming from the Associated Press, Il Giornale della musica Online (in translation) and the Milan-based blogger Opera Chic.

The most widely reported-on scene — the one that proved so irresistible to headline writers (and to the politics-oriented editors of mainstream news outlets) last December — is still there: five actors in masks portraying George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi cavorting in what reports call "underwear." In fact, the five heads of state — standing for the exiled monarchs in "The Kings' Barcarolle," a number cut from most productions of Candide — are wearing swimming trunks (and neckties) resembling their respective national flags as they dance and sing on a beach covered with crude oil. A photo of the scene as performed at the Chê¢telet is below; according to Opera Chic, the only difference at La Scala is that there are no more neckties and Berlusconi's bathing suit is less brief. (She also observes that two of the five politicians are no longer in office, and a third will be out by this time next week.)

What is missing from the Milan version of the production — besides two songs and about 15 minutes' running time — is any trace of anti-Roman Catholic or even anti-clerical satire, which was a sizeable element in Carsen's original staging. The entire episode of Candide's encounter with the priests in South America — in this production, Santa Fe, New Mexico — has been cut. (Opera Chic attributes the excision to the enormous power, political and social, which the Church continues to wield in Italy.)

Carsen has made a very free adaptation of Bernstein's original 1956 scenario and Hugh Wheeler's 1974 book (made for a Broadway revival). The Bernstein-approved versions made the Spanish Inquisition a stand-in for McCarthyism and for government repression of free expression generally; Carsen has transposed the entire story to the modern-day United States and added the character of Voltaire himself (speaking in the language of the audience) 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," said the director, who is Canadian, to The New York Times last 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; 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. The final chorus, "Make Our Garden Grow," is performed before video images of smoke-belching factories, clear-cut forests, barren deserts and melting glaciers, according to Giornale della musica.

Carsen told the Times last winter 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.

In a press conference yesterday, Carsen denied that his staging has been censored: "I wouldn't be here now if there had been any pressure because that would be against the spirit of freedom in this opera," the AP and ANSA news agencies quoted him as saying. (He has always insisted that he was not asked to drop the presidents-in-bathing-suits scene.)

The cast, almost unchanged from the Chê¢telet run, is headed by tenor William Burden and soprano Anna Christy as Candide and Cunegonde, with French movie star Lambert Wilson as Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss and British musical theater diva Kim Criswell as the Old Lady. The performers, Carsen and conductor John Axelrod received a ten-minute ovation last night, according to the Giornale. (The critic had particular praise for La Scala's chorus, which was "evidently enjoying itself; nobody had ever seen it dance with so much verve on stage.)

Candide runs for eight more performances from tomorrow night through July 18 at the Teatro alla Scala; English National Opera will present the production, with Toby Spence in the title role, in June and July of 2008.

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