The whole thing about Candide relates back to the title of Voltaire’s novella, upon which this beloved operetta is based. The full title of the great French Enlightenment writer’s 1759 satire about the illegitimate nephew of a German baron is Candide, ou l’Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism). It gives us all the clues about how an ever-hopeful, hapless young lad who traipses the world in search of meaning forms the basis of Bernstein’s most famous operatic work.

His beaming smile and almost hopeless lack of guile as he befalls one calamity after another is where the story begins and ends. Don’t be foolishly led by trusting everything and everyone around you – this is the message.

This Adelaide production, jointly put on by State Opera South Australia and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, can be summed up more quickly. It is dazzling. The amount of talent and experience these two flagship arts companies bring to bear is phenomenal, and it only came about by coincidence.

Mitchell Butel, who co-directs and takes the role of the toffee-nosed teacher Dr Pangloss, led a production of Candide in Sydney one year before he signed on as artistic director of State Theatre SA. Three of the same stellar cast in that production have reassembled here in Adelaide.

Hans is great fun in Candide. Photo: Andrew Beveridge

Impeccably articulate in his spoken delivery and charmingly mellifluous in his baritone solos, Butel himself could not be bettered as Dr Pangloss. Neither to be outdone were Alexander Lewis as Candide, Annie Aitken as his love-heart Cunegonde, and Caroline O’Connor as ‘The Old Lady’.

The latter is one of the more cringeful aspects about Voltaire’s story: unchanged by Bernstein and his lyricists, this is a horrible name for any actress to have to wear, least of all one of Australia’s most respected stars of the stage. Correcting this political incorrectness, Dr Pangloss introduces her as ‘a veteran, but still pretty hot’. And O’Connor certainly was that: she was sizzling.

Lewis’s resonant tenor and perpetual toothy grin makes him bullet-proof perfect as Candide, while Aitken’s trilling soprano and coloratura agility in ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ almost shade out Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ in vocal pyrotechnics. O’Connor’s all-conquering talent gives us one of the most sustained, potent performances when, disguised as a Spanish entertainer scrounging for money, she recounts her own litany of misfortunes – including losing one of her buttocks.

Caroline O’Connor scorches as the unfortuantely named “Old Lady”. Photo: Andrew Beveridge

Then there’s the Hans. Adored by Adelaide Fringe audiences for his over-the-top camp solo shows, it was total genius to cast him as the egotistical side character Maximilian. His emblazoning entrance as one of a brigade of Parisian entertainers in Act One is the most outrageously hilarious moment of all. But he sings so very well too, as when he disguises himself as a slave girl in Montevideo in Act Two.

John Longmuir, who, as the governor of Montevideo falls in love with this slave girl, is scintillating. He plays up to this and a bunch of other side roles with greatest theatrical skill. The cast is tremendous right down the list, with Taylah Johns as Paquette and Michaela Burger, Rosie Hosking, Ezra Juanta and Rod Schultz taking other minor roles.

Each puts in top performances, and the combination of them all produces the finest music theatre seen in this city in years.

What it all comes down to is, of course, Bernstein’s music, beginning with Candide’s famous overture. A twitchy, distracted, cartoonish thing but replete with melody, it was all there in rudest health thanks to Anthony Hunt conducting a snappy Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Cheeky piccolo solos and cymbal crashes turned on the electricity in an instant.

Bernstein’s jumpy, jazz-inspired rhythms are hard to hop straight onto, and his style ranges around wildly in Candide from Prokofiev and Bizet to Gilbert and Sullivan. Which is to say it is pure Bernstein.

Hunt had everything up his sleeve and pulled it all together with great skill, allowing breathing room for his singers while setting a brisk pace for the orchestra. At the rear, the State Opera Chorus, augmented by students from the Elder Conservatorium, were full of verve and never skipped a beat. This all-in-together atmosphere makes Bernstein come alive, and it did.

Numerous clever touches and a fast clip put this production at the top of the class. Co-director Amy Campbell has choreographed it brilliantly, and the costumes by Brendan de la Hay are a bewildering, wonderful eyeful. The set design consists of just seven internally-lit cubes positioned to the front of the orchestra. The cast move these about with each scene change like improvised theatre. Simple can be the best.

Bernstein give us lots to party about in Candide, and this production is an absolute stonker. Get ready for a night of pure elation and unrivalled fun.

This is a review of Candide’s opening night on May 23. A partnership between State Opera South Australia and State Theatre Company South Australia, it runs at Her Majesty’s Theatre until May 25.

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