Candide camera

Candide camera


norman lebrecht

June 26, 2008

The most striking feature of English National opera’s new production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is the drop-curtain.

It has been made up to look like a 1950s television test-card and it takes us instantly back to that era.

The card melts, as the music strikes up, into newsreel clips of Middle America, McCarthyism, gas guzzlers and the rise of the Kennedys. I won’t review the show – Fiona Maddocks gets it bang to rights in the Evening Standard – except to say that Robert Carsen’s co-pro with Paris and La Scala seemed to appeal more to under-30s in the audience than to over-40s.

Carsen’s supposedly controversial caricature of Bush, Blair, Putin & Co in flag-design swim pants was silly rather than provocative and the Eurotrash anti-American tone of the show grew tedious after the first ten gags.

What bothered me most, though, was what I had liked best.

When the test card became an active screen for moving images, it completely distracted attention from the Overture which, in my view, is the most concentrated and exciting piece of music that Bernstein ever wrote. I missed the Overture and it may have blighted my evening.

There is a growing tendency for directors to use Overture time to do clever things beneath the proscenium. Some have actors wandering the footlights, others project movie clips. They miss the point.

There is a reason composers write overtures, and it’s not just to allow latecomers to find their seats. The Overture sets the mood of a show. Overlay it with visual peripheria and you risk going into the performance without the courtesy of foreplay.

I’m setting up an Overture Protection Society. Sign up in Comments, below.


  • OC says:

    Hells yes I’m down with O.P.S!
    NL: Hey, roll up, roll up!
    We have Lady OC as our first member – chic, or what?

  • blazerbadge says:

    Sign me up! Save the Overtures!!! AAHHHHH!!!!
    NL: Welcome aboard. That makes four of us.

  • Michael S. says:

    Overtures are here to stay!!!

  • Carol Gould says:

    Please enrol me! Stephen Sondheim once said that if you don;t get the audience by the kishkas (guts) in the first five minutes you have lost them for the rest of the evening. His opening number of ‘Follies’ is one of the greatest theatrical moments ever. I remember being shocked to my core when the overture to ‘My Fair Lady’ was tampered with by the Drury Lane production in 2000. I wrote to Trevor Nunn and he said I was wrong. As it happens, my late mother had attended the opening night at the Erlanger Theatre in Philadelphia and she and her friends had proclaimed the show the greatest ever written. My sister and I duly learned every note by heart.
    As a proud American I was appalled by the Carsen ‘Candide.’ My review can be read at
    Did Norman write something about it in the July 3rd ‘Standard?’ There were several letters to the editor about it but I did not buy the paper that night. Can we read it somewhere?
    Carol, you’re enrolled.
    My Standard column on Candide can be read here: