Classical: Nothing more than this? Depends what you mean

CANDIDE BARBICAN LONDON

LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S Candide. That's how the London Symphony Orchestra billed it here - presumably because listing all its collaborators on the title page of the programme would have left little room for anything else. Too many cooks spoiled the book. That is what happened to Candide, the musical. In the best of all possible worlds, it might just have worked: Voltaire's little novella turned very big operetta. But Lillian Hellman - who provided the show's original book - had more feeling for the political agenda than she did for the musical comedy, and subsequent rescue operations only added to the confusion. To quote one of its songs: "Words, Words, Words". No doubt about it, words have been the undoing of Candide. I've yet to see it work in the theatre, though Trevor Nunn and John Caird - who stage it at the National Theatre next spring - are plainly optimistic. So was Candide, of course.

There remains, though, that score - a marvel of pith and pastiche and shameless piracy. A little Gounod here, a little Rossini or Verdi there, a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan everywhere. All of it cohesively melded through the wit and wisdom of Bernstein's own musical voice. Bernstein's music is Candide's music, always aspirational, always reaching for the octave and beyond.

Nine years ago, London's Barbican Hall jumped to Candide's tunes. Bernstein himself (in what was his last London engagement) couriered the conducted tour with a little help from Dr Pangloss, better known as his old sparring partner Adolph Green. This time around, Nickolas Grace - rather more dexterous, physically and verbally - did the honours, wryly understating the topicality of his updated narration. A little more pace might better have conveyed the whistle-stop nature of Voltaire's "picaresque" plotting, but his energy was, at very least, infectious. Not so the lacklustre conducting of Kent Nagano.

If the syncopated home straight of the Overture is not somehow impatient for the fun, froth, and frolic to come, then the chances are it's not going to be there. It wasn't. Neither was Nagano. Tempi were plodding, rhythms lazy. This was a souffle that never rose. The raucous flamenco climax of the Old Lady's Tango "I am Easily Assimilated" is an invitation to join in the foot-stamping, brazen trumpets whacking out the offer you can't refuse. But for all Patricia Routledge's best efforts with the castanets, lift-off was postponed.

Routledge stole the show. Her comic timing put some of the zest back into it. So, too, did Thomas Allen's deliciously sibilant Maximilian. Then there was the Jerry and June show - Jerry Hadley (Candide) and June Anderson (Cunegonde), sole survivors of the performances from nearly a decade ago. Anderson still sports the dizzying E-flats, but not the irony that can make "Glitter and Be Gay" so killingly funny; Hadley is no longer quite so fresh-faced or fresh-voiced, not least in those idealistic and once honeyed ascents above the stave. But he means what he sings, and that in itself made the disillusionment of "Nothing More Than This" the most poignant of tributes to a composer who never really knew just how good he was.

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