A lively, appealing production of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta opens Victorian Opera’s 2024 season, and perhaps sets the tone for the company under its new Artistic Director, Stuart Maunder.

Nicely timed with the recent release of Bradley Cooper’s film about Bernstein, Maestro, this is the first Candide seen in Melbourne for many a year. It’s also notable for company debuts by artists such as Eddie Perfect, Lyndon Watts (Hamilton’s Aaron Burr), conductor Benjamin Northey and theatre, musical and opera director Dean Bryant.

Victorian Opera’s Candide (Lyndon Watts, centre). Photo © Charlie Kinross

This absurdist philosophical work’s 1956 premiere on Broadway was a failure, but various revisions, including takes better suited to opera companies, has seen this adaptation of Voltaire’s 1759 satirical novella find its audience. Victorian Opera has gone with Bernstein’s final revision. Hugh Wheeler wrote the book, and lyrics are by Richard Wilbur with contributions by the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Dorothy Parker and Bernstein himself.

The story follows a young man called Candide and his various on-again, off-again companions. They include the woman he loves, Cunegonde, and their tutor, Dr Pangloss, whose optimistic world view is put to the test on a series of misadventures.

Around Europe, to the New World and back again to Venice, they experience war, sexual servitude, slavery, execution (almost), a volcanic eruption, shipwreck, wealth and destitution. Candide even accidentally kills a couple of people along the way.

Throughout Candide’s two-or-so hours (plus interval), director Bryant keeps things fun but tightly focused while also giving space to moments of contemplation and vocal brio. Orchestra Victoria performs upstage, and is fully on show for the overture and Act II’s entr’acte. They are in rare form under Northey, by turns playful and lush.

Eddie Perfect (left) as Pangloss in Victorian Opera’s Candide. Photo © Charlie Kinross

As Dr Pangloss and occasional narrator Voltaire, Perfect delivers a stellar performance notable for his confident stage presence, understated comic flair and strong baritone. Showing off his tenor voice and acting talent in equal measure, Watts effortlessly conveys the title character’s innocence, anxiety, kindness and romantic highs and lows.

Soprano Katherine Allen’s Cunegonde is a combination of charming comedy and some stunning coloratura singing. Her solo ‘Glitter and be gay’, with its stratospheric top notes and technical accomplishment, recalls Mozart’s Queen of the Night but in a sardonic rather than furious mood.

Euan Fistrovic Doidge threatens to steal the show as the camp Maximilian (recalling his turn as Felicia in 2018’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert, including the Aussie accent). As a bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i is usually seen in grim roles, but here sings sweetly and reveals an endearing, gently comic quality as Cacambo.

Euan Fistrovic Doidge and Katherine Allen in Victorian Opera’s Candide. Photo © Charlie Kinross

Melanie Bird is a delightful Paquette and, apart from a few flat notes on opening night, Maria Mercedes ticks the boxes as the gruff Old Lady. Alexander Lewis and Troy Sussman throw themselves into broad roles, particularly the former as the outrageously accented governor and Vanderdendur.

The chorus is in fine voice, and so engaging on the rare occasions they are part of the action one might wish they weren’t mostly stuck behind the orchestra.

Their restrained black costumes and make-up recall Weimar cabaret, but Dann Barber looks to 18th century excess to dress the main cast. The parade of colour, bows, frills, big wigs and crinolines is made all the more visually interesting by the use of refuse such as garbage bags in their construction, dirty finishes and modern footwear including runners and cowboy boots.

Perhaps even more clever is Barber’s set, which is essentially a very hard-working (prop) vintage caravan superbly lit by Matt Scott. We are whisked to each new location, from Paris to Buenos Aires, with an antique-style banner popping out the top of the caravan or, even better when it opens up like a little stage, old-fashioned painted backdrops.

These banners and backdrops are handsomely nostalgic and also humorous (Melbourne’s famous Skipping Girl neon sign appears in Lisbon, for example), while the El Dorado scene’s lustrous gold fabric for both set and costume is eye-popping.

From design to cast to orchestra, there is much to like about Victorian Opera’s Candide. Such a pity then there are only three performances.

Victorian Opera’s Candide is staged at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda until 10 February.

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