uploaded : Saturday 5th Jul 2008 at 00:57
by : Carol Gould
CANDIDE at the London Coliseum
(English National Opera)
Season sponsored by Sky Arts
Review by Carol Gould
3rd July 2008
Fifty-seven years ago the powerful entertainment critics Ed Sullivan and Dorothy Kilgallen effectively finished off any hope of a normal run of a Broadway musical, ‘Flahooley’ by Sammy Fain and Yip Harburg. They objected to its unpatriotic theme and to the relentless digs at capitalism. It closed after a short run but is still a favourite for collectors, having marked the Broadway debut of the legendary Barbara Cook. I treasure my copy of the original LP
of the show, with the image of Yma Sumac gazing down upon the fictional land of Capsulanti, an allegorical United States of America.
What I loved -- and still love -- about ‘Flahooley’ was the delightful score by Fred Saidy and the biting lyrics by E.Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg, who was recuperating from the ordeal of being confronted by the 1950s- era anti-Communist Congressional committees. He had lived through the -Helen Gahagan Douglas - Jerry Voorhis investigations that saw Alger Hiss sent to jail and Richard Milhous Nixon achieve national stature. Kilgallen and Sullivan condemned a show that was mild and very lovable and ended the run of what I consider, with its Baird puppets, Saudi Arabian oil genie, Yma Sumac and stunning visuals a work of genius.
What I do not love about Robert Carsen’s ‘Candide’ at the London Coliseum (English National Opera co-production with Theatre du Chatelet, Paris and Teatro alla Scala, Milan) is the blatantly anti-American scenario that unfolds in the context of the Voltaire story of Candide and the glorious score by Leonard Bernstein. Admittedly the creative teams of the 1950s could not have written with scathing hatred of the United States and even the now-camp lyrics of ‘Flahooley’ ( ‘Flahooley, all you wanted to do was bring laughter into the world!’ interpreted by the McCarthyists as ‘all you wanted to do was bring Communism into the world!’) were provocative enough to cause scandal. Notwithstanding the pride with which Britain holds free expression, this production borders on the scandalous because it projects an incessantly hateful image of the things even liberal Americans hold sacred. As I said to one of the actors after the performance at the Coliseum, ‘Well, in three hours Robert Carsen has turned me into a McCain supporter.’
First, let us look at the concept: the stage set is a giant television, even with moveable knobs. The overture, which has become somewhat ubiquitous in concert halls but is still a splendid introduction to the bitter Lillian Hellman-Hugh Wheeler allegory for 1950s McCarthyland, is accompanied by a long compilation film of images of life in America during that era. Soon we see that the evening will be set at the White House of John Fitzgerald Kennedy shortly after his inauguration in the nation of ‘West Failure.’ The First Lady is parodied as a flighty and silly light-weight. The real Mrs Kennedy was no nincompoop. One of the saving graces of this production, however, is the portrayal of Dr Pangloss, tutor to the Presidential children, of narrator Voltaire and of the dustman Martin by the superb Alex Jennings.
Does the ENO really think Americans will ever get over the trauma of November 22? Why, therefore, does his costume designer dress the 1961-era Jacqueline Kennedy in the same pink suit and pillbox hat she wore the day the President was assassinated in 1963? It is sickening and deeply distasteful.
My new book, ‘Don’t Tread on Me - anti-Americanism Abroad’ is to be published in the United States and United Kingdom in October and several chapters deal with the obsessive and often laughably inaccurate images Britons seem to have of ‘merkins.’ It is therefore a pity that an opera company that receives so much private and public subsidy -- including an American support contingent -- stoops to the level of flawed and sometimes hateful farce in the context of the beautiful score by Bernstein, who, incidentally, was known to be deeply fond of the Kennedys.
Yes, the audience thought it very funny indeed that Paquette dresses and undresses JFK, and gave huge applause to a ridiculous scene in which Jackie berates Caroline (Cunegonde) for loving Candide, who is not aristocracy. Would Jackie have let Caroline marry Ed Schlossberg or John Jr to marry a model had she wanted aristocratic grandchildren? Yes, although I have lived in Britain for thirty-three years and for ten was one of only two American employees of Anglia Television surrounded by eight-hundred British co-workers, I still see things in black and white and cannot understand why ENO chose to ridicule one of the most loved families in American history.
It gets worse.
We hear the beautiful song about everything that is good but the characters hold their hands onto their hearts. At this point one assumes this is another spoof of Americana ( how many times have I been asked in thirty-three years why Americans do this ?) but the worst is yet to come. Candide is co-opted into the United States/West Failure army by two aging and overweight soldiers drinking from a flask and saluting Uncle Sam. He is then subjected to unspeakable beatings and floggings during basic training. ( My late mother and aunt -- eventually sent to Japan with MacArthur’s army of occupation -- went through brutal basic training in the United States Army during the Second World War but even for the men, the process was not like this.) The army of West failure is, as narrator Voltaire reminds us, responsible for 300,000 dead, shot, gassed and burned.
Notwithstanding the damage done by the Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and My Lai cases to the otherwise ethical reputation of the American military, it is indeed well known that during World War II German captives prayed they would be taken into custody by the Yanks and not the Russians. My next book, about the Italian and German POWs at Camp Pickett, Virginia, provides a full picture of the humane treatment these men received; my mother was based there and was an eyewitness.
Lillian Hellman’s bitter feelings about the 1950s America in which she was living and that Yip Harburg later described as a police state emerge in the graphic lyrics and dialogue as the rape, pillage, disembowelling and other depravities are enumerated and attributed to the West Failure army. During this tableau it is revealed that Cunegonde’s father (JFK) was assassinated and her mother hacked to death by the enemy, which one assumes is East Failure. No doubt ‘What a day for an auto-da-fe’ is one of the monumental ‘Hellman bitterness’ scenes in ‘Candide’ and the Coliseum audience seemed roaringly approving of a conglomeration of Ku Klux Klansmen ( their white hooded robes are bedecked with red white and blue), anti-Semitic congressional investigators shouting epithets about ‘radical Jews and homosexualists’ and hangmen, accompanied by well-wishers waving huge American flags celebrating the lynching of ‘Communist Jews. ’ Those being hanged include Dr Pangloss and Candide.
Before Act One ends we see Cunegonde transformed into Marilyn Monroe, dressed in pink. She is at the mercy of two vulgar Hollywood moguls, who call her an ‘ungrateful shixeh bitch’ and are shot dead by Candide. Yes, amusing but at this point one felt the production was sinking into cheap stereotyping. Act One concludes with reference to Christianity, Democracy and McDonalds in the New World. Huge audience reaction but to me another cheap shot at what I still believe is an immensely cultured, dignified and great nation. Did not an American discover the cure for polio? Did not NASA put a man on the moon? Did not Seattle geniuses develop Miscrosoft? Inasmuch as the London Times lists Yale, Harvard, Princeton and MIT in the top ten of world universities, does Robert Carsen have to bring in to a major operatic production the stupid stereotypes of pre-Obama America?
In Act Two there are some wonderful moments that are a tribute to the strength of the original collaborations on lyrics and book. The comical figure of the ‘Old Lady’ is brought to life by Beverley Klein, whose stage dynamism makes the woman’s life of tragedy and torture rise above the gory imagery. Klein, who has sparkled in other London hits, has matured as a performer and is at her peak here. She is a treasure whom Bernstein would have loved. The second act is peppered with more swipes at West Failure/the USA including a line from the Native American Cacambo, played with style by Ferlyn Brass: ‘The white man here has everything -- everyone else has nothing -- that’s called democracy.’ This is very likely the way Bernstein and Hellman felt in 1956, but what irritates in this production is the constant reminder, visual and verbal, of this being modern-day America, a nation that has moved on with phenomenal speed from these dark times. One line that puzzles comes from Maximilian/JFK Junior, who reappears here as a missionary; he says to Candide, ‘Don’t talk about my father -- I’m glad he is dead.’ Unless I am misinterpreting this episode, does Robert Carsen really think John Kennedy Junior would have celebrated his father’s assassination? In these scenes Cunegonde is again in ‘Jackie Kennedy pink.’
Various characters dart in and out with placards representing ‘Salt Lake City, Utah’ and ‘ Eldorado, Texas’ as cowboys, gamblers and immigration officers cavort with Christian fervour, crass greed or base vulgarity. The audience adored this and was in pure rapture over the huge curtains made of US dollar bills, a reference to Texaco, a motor car with a $$$$$ licence plate and a placard representing ‘Pearl Harbor, Hawaii’ ( does Carsen hold nothing American sacred?), accompanied by Hawaiian dancing boys and girls, which I found as appalling as the backdrop in Act One of GIs marching to accompany the lyrics about military violence and cruelty.
The scene of Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, George Bush and Silvio Berlusconi in swimming trunks of their respective national flags is so absurd as to be unnecessary -- except for the superb Bernstein music -- inasmuch as the show is overlong, and the turgid scene with the dustman who urinates on the stage, though brought to life with panache by Alex Jennings, is not a strong one and was never a highlight of the original productions.
When Voltaire told the audience that Cunegonde would soon discover that the West Failure flag ( also known to Americans as the Stars and Stripes and actually a symbol of pride even to liberals) is ‘Redneck, blue collar and white trash’ the Coliseum crowd went crazy. It stopped the show. Grey-haired people near me, who are not speaking German because of the thousands of Americans who died fighting Europe’s tribal wars, were standing and cheering. Up in the gods the audience was in near-hysteria of joy. After thirty-three years here I had no idea just how much Britons hate America. A real eye-opener. If I could sell my flat I would leave now. I felt like a Jew in Munich in 1938.
More lines like ‘Now that America’s bankrupt, who cares about the price of oil?’ and placards held by Mormons warning ‘Prepare to meet thy doom’ and ‘Repent before it’s too late’ evoked equal joy from the rampantly anti-American audience. No doubt Lillian Hellman and a 1950s Bernstein, as well as Yip Harburg, would have relished these epithets but my complaint is that the America conjured up in Robert Carsen’s fantasy world is dead and gone. Has Britain or Europe ever had a black Chairman of its Joint Military Chiefs as did the USA in Colin Powell? Has Europe or Britain produced a Condi Rice, who speaks innumerable languages and is a piano virtuoso? Has Europe or Britain produced a campaign as dynamic as that just experienced with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? Is white Europe, where Spaniards dress in black face when Lewis Hamilton trains in Barcelona, going to vote in its millions as did white America in Iowa and Nebraska and countless other states for a black Presidential candidate? Do fans of teams have to be separated into isolated stands at sporting events in the USA? Have American sport fans ever behaved as did the huge, crazed and drunken Glasgow Rangers mob in Manchester a few weeks ago, beating policemen to a pulp? (There is so little trouble at American sporting events that it is rare to see a policeman anywhere.) As horrible as it was -- and indeed my parents thought of emigrating during this time -- the McCarthy, Jim Crow, Watergate and Vietnam eras passed and are now gone, and the resilient nation of the United States carries on.
There is a legend that Leonard Bernstein meant the final chorus about making one's garden grow to be an allogory for the birth of the State of Israel. I wept when I saw the production as a child and again at the National Theatre in 1999. Whether this tale is true or not is of no consequence here, as the production team has decided to provide a backdrop of the evils of global warming ( blame it on the Yanks!) and of barren fields one assumes were devastated by evil Americans...
The brilliant performances from this English National Opera company are to me devalued by this unfortunate parody of the United States. Perhaps ENO might like to do a worthwhile parody of the Anglican Church, whose reactionary and homophobic antics make me bow my head in shame. In the United States distinguished women have been Bishops for years, and there are hundreds of gay clergy. The Anglo-Jewish community has Rabbi Baroness Dr Julia Neuberger, the equivalent of a Bishop. Rabbi Lionel Blue is openly gay -- how can the Anglican community be so backward? Who are the reactionaries in this instance, Americans or the rest of the world? The ENO 'Candide' depicts a narrow-minded America that no longer exists.
This production is worth seeing to appreciate the superb performances by both Cunegondes, Marnie Breckenridge and Anna Christy, ( I went twice), by Alex Jennings, Toby Spence (Candide) and Beverley Klein along with the versatile cast in multiple roles. Ferlyn Brass, who endows the Indian guide with such menschlachkeit, (Yiddish for lovability) is not mentioned in the programme but is worth a special mention. The set and costumes are striking and the music performed by the outstanding English National Opera orchestra is Bernstein at his most glorious.
‘Candide’ runs at the London Coliseum until 12 July 2008 : box office 0871 911 0200
Carol Gould's new book about anti-Americanism :