CANDIDE, the satirical novella by Voltaire, is one of the great works of philosophical literature. First published in 1759, the book takes a darkly comic sideswipe at the inordinate optimism of those who believed that “all is for the best in this best of possible worlds”.

Contemplating terrible events, such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in which appalling suffering seemed indiscriminate, Voltaire spins his young protagonist, Candide, out of his sheltered, academic paradise. So influential did the novella become that it bequeathed to humanity the adjective “Panglossian” (a reference to Candide’s hyper-optimistic teacher Dr Pangloss).

Voltaire’s book has had a tremendous cultural, as well as philosophical, influence over the almost three centuries since it was written. Writers and artists in various fields have created works inspired by Candide.

Perhaps the most famous is the “comic operetta” by the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Despite a poor critical reaction when it opened on Broadway in 1956, the work has undergone various revisions and additions (including some new lyrics by Stephen Sondheim for the 1973 revival and revisions by Bernstein himself in 1987).

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Ironically, it was optimism – an undeterred faith in the possibilities of Bernstein’s original work – that would make Candide a much-loved staple of the modern operatic canon. So much so that Scottish Opera has considered our world – which is so abundantly resistant to Panglossian optimism – and decided that now is a good time for a staging of Bernstein’s piece.

The production will play as part of the Live at No. 40 mini-festival of outdoor performances at Scottish Opera’s production studios in Glasgow (a mini-festival that began last year in response to the Covid pandemic). Bringing together professional opera singers with a community chorus, the show will offer audience members the opportunity to follow Candide on his journey in promenade (those who prefer or require to be sedentary can watch the action from the comfort of a seat).

THE production (which opens on Thursday) will be joined in the summer season by a concert by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera (August 17) and a revival of Dominic Hill’s excellent staging of Shakespeare’s The Comedy Of Errors for the Citizens Theatre Company (August 26 to September 3).

Candide is being directed by Jack Furness, an experienced stage artist and founding director of the Shadwell Opera company, which is based in east London. I caught up with him in the midst of rehearsals.

Does Voltaire’s story – in which the chaos of the world destroys the almost utopian optimism of the book’s titular protagonist – seem timeless, I ask the director, given everything humanity is currently experiencing, from Covid, to the climate catastrophe and war, from Yemen and Syria to Ukraine? “It’s amazing how modern it seems,” he says.

Bernstein’s operetta is a breath of fresh 
air as part of city’s summer mini-festivalRehearsals for Scottish Opera's new production of 'Candide' by Leonard Bernstein...

However, Furness adds, humanity’s outlook in 2022 contrasts starkly with the philosophical optimism that Voltaire was satirising in the mid-1700s and the confidence of the post-war United States that Bernstein observed in the 1950s.

“Voltaire was very much into puncturing cosy optimism,” the director comments. “The same goes for Bernstein, when the operetta was originally written, in the 1950s.

“I don’t know that most people are that optimistic at the moment. We’ve had our bubble thoroughly burst by the pandemic or the financial crash... I don’t think that we live in a particularly optimistic age now.”

The director and the company have been asking themselves: “where does that optimistic philosophy now reside?”

In Voltaire’s day, Furness continues, it was rooted in the church, and when Bernstein wrote the operetta, it rested on faith in the “American Dream” of untrammelled capitalist growth.

These days, the director suggests, optimism is based on very flimsy foundations. All that 21st-century capitalism has to offer is the hollow cheerfulness of reality TV shows and “the idea that you can make yourself happy by clicking a button and getting an Amazon delivery.”

The best way to honour the satirical intentions of both Voltaire and Bernstein is, Furness believes, to make Scottish Opera’s Candide very much of our times. “If it’s a satire,” he avers “it has to have contemporary targets.”

THE process of updating Voltaire’s story has been assisted greatly, the director says, by the inherent and deliberate chaos of the Frenchman’s original narrative. All Furness had to do, in connecting that with the mayhem of our own times, was to make sure that his production didn’t try to “rationalise the chaos into one idea.”

The whirlwind in which Voltaire places his young protagonist is famously picaresque, as Candide is transported from one scene of destruction and suffering to another.

The director intends to reflect the episodic character of the book in his staging of Bernstein’s operetta. “We have,” he explains, “really tried to treat each scene as a world in itself.”

In doing so, Furness is blessed with a superb cast. The celebrated tenor William Morgan (who played one of the titular leads in Scottish Opera’s recent production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers) will perform the role of Candide.

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The acclaimed Trinidadian tenor Ronald Samm will take on the characters of Dr Pangloss and Voltaire (among others).

The show’s cast of international opera singers will be joined by an 80-strong community chorus. This impressive group has been assembled in partnership with Maryhill Integration Network, an organisation (based a stone’s throw from Scottish Opera’s studios) that uses artistic projects to bring together asylum seekers, refugees and settled inhabitants of Glasgow.

Furness is full of admiration for the energy and dedication that the community players have brought to the piece. Indeed, he notes that, in writing the operetta, Bernstein brought the Jewish migrant experience to bear (born in the US, the composer was the son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants).

It seems appropriate that a piece by Bernstein – a noted humanist who campaigned against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons – should have a chorus that includes people who are seeking sanctuary from war and persecution here in Scotland.

Candide plays at the Scottish Opera studios, 40 Edington Street, Glasgow, August 11-20: scottishopera.org.uk