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Classical Notes

The best of all possible operas?

Posted at 2:46 PM on December 30, 2006 by Alison Young

La Scala cancelled their run of the opera Candide citing that the performances were not in line with the company's artistic program. It got me wondering, which theaters would consider a scene with actors posing as world leaders, scantily clad in nothing but a tie and a Speedo "in line with their artistic programs?"

Well, as it turns out, Robert Carsen and Ian Burton's up-dated collaboration on-stage in Paris, has left audiences roaring in the aisles, especially at the beach party of drunken presidents that leaves Vladimir Putin dead from poisoned champagne. Voltaire's "Westphalia" is now "West Failure," with the episode taking place on an oil-polluted sea. But it won’t take place in Milan.

Were George Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac doing a bacchanal the thing that tore it with La Scala? Or more likely, was it the bare-chested, party-animal Silvio Berlusconi that crossed the line? La Scala's theatre director says this particular scene was only part of the problem, but declined to give specifics.

Candide was not a great success when it premiered on Broadway 50 years ago. That was due in large part to people turning up their noses at an operetta trying to be a musical. But some feel the overtly political play by Lillian Hellman, that drew parallels between McCarthyism and the Spanish Inquisition, was the real turn-off.

The question of course then is if political satire was what Voltaire was going for in the first place. The 18th century was a time of optimism and mastery of the self, rather than dependence on fate or a divine being. Voltaire, who never signed his name to the book, unsympathetically subjects the eponymous protagonist to a series of misadventures, misfortunes, and even torture while leaving him pitifully clinging to the prevailing philosophy of the time, "it's all for the best."

We live in a time of poisoned spies, falling ice shelves, executed dictators and barbaric suicide bombings; maybe we should admit this isn’t quite the best of all possible worlds. And it looks like La Scala might have figured that out after all since just today they have come to an agreement on an abridged version of this current Candide to be staged in June.

I hope we'll still get some world leaders to poke fun at, even if they're not half-dressed and falling down drunk.