Candide, Iford Opera

FOR more than 30 years, Opera della Luna founder and director Jeff Clarke has wanted to stage Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, the opera (or is it a musical) version of Voltaire’s classic, first published in 1759.

He always thought that the tiny Harold Peto cloister at Iford, where he has launched so many productions, was too small for the 14-strong cast and the sweeping story. But it did seem like a finale possibility …

So 2018 audiences have six opportunities to see this tragi-comic phil­o­sophical satire which is as rele­vant now as in Voltaire’s day. Bernstein’s score (first published as an opera in 1956, with a new libretto in 1973 and a final revised operetta version in 1989), includes show-stopping numbers that propel the frankly barmy story to its conclusion.

Lillian Helman, one of the instigators of the project, thought Voltaire’s story reflected the nature of Americans – believing that all would be wonderful while ignoring atrocities under their noses.

Young Candide, bastard nephew of a Westphalian baron, is good, honest, loyal and totally taken in by the teachings of his tutor Dr Pangloss, believing that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. This “optimism” follows him through a packed life, surrounded by the  greedy, envious, angry, corrupt  and venal.

I have never seen the Cloister’s awkward and compact space more inventively used, with Jeff Clarke and Elroy Ashmore’s versatile  ornamentation of the central well and Wanda D’Onofrio’s spectacular and plentiful costumes. The production is as much a feast for the ears as the eyes, even if Oliver Gooch’s 14-strong Orph­eus Sinfo­nia can be a little overwhelming with Bernstein’s rhythmic and sometimes brassy music.

The statuesque Paula Sides is a me-generation Cunegonde, filling the arena with her soaring soprano, and David Horton a properly earnest  Candide.  What a treat to see Rosemary Ashe return to Iford after her 2004 performance in Robinson Crusoe. Here she turns her considerable comedy skills to The Old Woman (with only one buttock) and the Queen of Eldorado. Her king, John Griffiths, also impresses as Martin. Carl Sanderson is the easily led philosopher with a guardian angel.  Chris Jenkins is having fun as the arrogant and gender-fluid Maximilian.  Throw in grandees, red sheep, ghostly kings on scooter-gondolas, and the company will send you home with their splendid  voices ringing in your ears.

It’s a triumphant production at Iford, and there are literally a handful of tickets left for performances on 31st May and 2nd and 4th June.

The season continues with Handel’s Partenope and La Boheme.


Footnote. Writing about the Iford Festival this year isn’t easy – even driving down the narrow hill to Iford Manor feels like a journey to visit a beloved friend with a terminal diagnosis.

For 25 years the festival, held in the home of the Hignetts and directed by Judy Eglington, has been delighting lovers of opera, jazz and world music in what is the most beautiful of all “garden opera” settings. Its intimate scale, unique location, stunning gardens and tiny cloister, its family of volunteers and its welcome have created one of the most eagerly awaited of the UK’s burgeoning list of summer music festivals.

This will be the final festival in the grounds of Iford Manor.  Longtime supporters and sponsors, as well as Judy Eglington and her team, are promising that there is an enduring appetite for the festival, and opera in particular, in the region. The search is on to find a replacement venue.

But there IS no other Iford, and the discussions will be lengthy, complex and fraught with difficulty. The question must be, is it better to find somewhere new and start again, or draw from Alan Jay Lerner’s Camelot libretto.

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known as


Photographs by Mitzi de Margaray