Candide / BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London

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"Voltaire's novella is short and nobody sings; this version is long and everybody insists upon singing." That pretty well sums up Leonard Bernstein's Candide, and it's how the composer himself chose to describe it when he and John Wells devised their linking narration for his celebrated concert performances (and recording) of the so-called Scottish Opera version back in 1989.

"Voltaire's novella is short and nobody sings; this version is long and everybody insists upon singing." That pretty well sums up Leonard Bernstein's Candide, and it's how the composer himself chose to describe it when he and John Wells devised their linking narration for his celebrated concert performances (and recording) of the so-called Scottish Opera version back in 1989.

The staging of Candide has a chequered history. Conceived as a kind of veiled riposte to McCarthyism, the book by Lillian Hellman never really worked. So many lyricists came on board in various attempts to float it that, in keeping with Candide's own voyages, it was a shipwreck waiting to happen.

Salvage operations have been many, the most successful in my view being John Caird's National Theatre staging. But it remains, by and large, a sensational score trailing a picaresque narrative, and concert performances such as this from the BBC Concert Orchestra under the ebullient Rumon Gamba would seem to be the most sensible way to go.

Sir Thomas Allen - a witty and urbane narrator doubling in the role of Dr Pangloss - suspends disbelief without recourse to one scene-change. Perfect for radio, of course: you can hear it on 4 June as part of Radio 3's Bernstein week.

The first thing listeners will notice is a theatre-sized band skidding round the precarious corners of that ubiquitous overture. Gamba is not shy of extremes: in the slower numbers (notably "Candide's Lament") he seemed reluctant to let go of a single phrase. Which didn't exactly do his young, engaging Candide any favours. Michael Slattery, though, would hold his audience at any tempo. Such is his belief in every note he sings and every word he utters that he almost has us convinced that he has more voice than he does. It's a light, pretty voice, particularly well-suited to the rapturous head tones of "It Must Be So". Even where he might be overwhelmed (in the gloriously Puccini-esque "Nothing More Than This"), the sheer weight of his conviction carries him through.

He was well complemented by Carla Huhtanen's gamine Cunegonde. She did pretty well in her devilish set-piece "Glitter and Be Gay", and would do even better if she just let the song do the work. The comedy is written into the coloratura: all it needs is a nudge and a wink here and there. Kim Criswell's Old Woman gave "I Am Easily Assimilated" a little more than that - and very good she was - while Bonaventura Bottone bagged the villains with a series of strenuous top notes.

But the night belonged to Bernstein's audaciously inventive score. An outstanding chorus (Maida Vale Singers, Trinity College of Music Singers) romped through the delights of the auto-da-fé to make that leap of faith to the final paean, "Make Our Garden Grow". Now there's a tune that would make a believer even of Voltaire.

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