Auckland Arts Festival could not have wished for a more festive finale than Leonard Bernstein's Candide which sparked and sparkled in Stuart Maunder's resourceful staging at Auckland Town Hall with the soloists and company of New Zealand Opera.

Candide is the ultimate ill-fated operetta, enduring a series of major revisions following its disastrous 1956 premiere. Here, Voltaire's clear-eyed cautionary tale proved a stylish scamper around the world, as its hapless characters searched for truth and happiness.

Maunder is the man with the mojo when it comes to musicals, underscoring the production with almost relentlessly inventive stage business, complemented by Yvette Lee's sometimes zany choreography. An apron stage let us all feel the party spirit and marvel at Roger Kirk's snappy costuming.

Amelia Berry's Cunegonde was marvellously manic in her celebrated jewel aria, casting off triumphant top E flats; a quartet of 18th century "chorus boys" reminding one of Marilyn Monroe's diamonds number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. James Benjamin Rodgers, in the title role, sung with unforced lyricism, calling on his considerable vocal heft when Bernstein stirs up a full operatic climax.


James Harrison caught the foppish Maximilian to the last wince, Natasha Wilson was a pert Paquette and Jacqueline Dark uproariously feisty as the Old Lady but I was disappointed not to hear her introduce the cut "quiet" trio.

Maunder encourages players to explore vaudevillian excess and the audience appreciated it during Kanen Breen's hilarious courting of a cross-dressed Harrison. Playing the wily Voltaire and the blinkered Dr Pangloss, along with other passing eccentrics, Reg Livermore worked the house like a classy cabaretmeister.

Plaudits too for the chorus, running the gamut from faux chorales to beer-barrel polkas. An on-stage Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Wyn Davies, turned out to be the grandest pit band in the land.

Where: Auckland Town Hall