Candide by Leonard Bernstein. Santa Fe Opera. Alex Shrader (Candide), Brenda Rae (Cunegonde), Helene Schneiderman (Old Lady), Kevin Burdette (Pangloss), Jarrett Ott (Maximillian), Anthony Robin Schneider (Baron), Kathleen Reveille (Baroness), Richard Troxell (Governor), Gina Perregrino (Paquette). Harry Bickett, conductor; Laurent Pelly, director. July 31, 2018.
Given that 2018 marks the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, his works are receiving more performances than ever. Santa Fe Opera’s (SFO) contribution is its first-ever Candide. I’ve already seen it twice this season, a concert version by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and a scaled-down staging by the Toronto Operetta Theatre. But the SFO production is a real treat, directed by that French master of comedy, Laurent Pelly, whose work at SFO included La belle Helene and Cendrillon. It was with much anticipation that I attended Candide here at the gorgeous John Crosby Theatre, and I was not disappointed.
The basic set designed by Chantal Thomas consists of enormous pages of manuscripts on which texts and images are projected, simple, not particularly beautiful visually but effective. Originally based on a novella by Voltaire, the Bernstein Candide has had many iterations since its premiere in 1956. Not a success at the time, it underwent many revisions. Santa Fe chooses the 1989 version staged by Scottish Opera, which the composer himself considered the “Final Revised Version.” Lyricists in this version include Lillian Hellman, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, as well as the composer himself.
Candide is a satire published in 1759 by the French philosopher Voltaire, the central theme of which is a rejection of the optimism and excessive idealism of the Enlightenment. The story is incredibly complicated — far-fetched is a more accurate description, but that’s the point! It depicts the many epic catastrophes that befall the central characters of Candide and Cunegonde in their global adventures, which include war, earthquake, a shipwreck, an Inquisition, you name it. These experiences tax the optimistic nature of Candide, a philosophy taught to him by his tutor Pangloss.
Eventually, Candide and Company come to the realization that life is neither good or evil, fair or unfair. Simply put, life is life — one should accept it for what it is; it’s what one makes of it that counts. They eventually settle down to a simpler life, taking life as it comes, discovering that the secret of happiness is to “let the garden grow,” to borrow the title of the famous Finale.
Given the current political climate of global strife and ideological struggles, Voltaire’s philosophy — one that’s anti-science, anti-religion, anti-government, among other things — has a strange resonance today. Without intending to politicize the piece, if you look beneath the surface, this SFO production makes veiled references to current American politics and certain public figures. Candide is a comedy, but with a dead-serious theme. To be sure there are plenty of laughs, including off-colour bits sprinkled throughout. After all, it was banned in Voltaire’s time given its blasphemous and seditious themes, making fun of the aristocracy and the church.
The SFO’s production is performed without cuts, which means every note is restored, such as the duet of Cunegonde and the Old Lady (“We Are Women”). There was a huge amount of dialogue that the singers must deliver without the benefit of amplification. With a single intermission, the show came in at three hours. Bernstein fans loved it to be sure, but to others, it was a tad long-winded. The strong cast was led by Alec Shrader as a wonderful Candide. Like his Albert Herring at SFO a few seasons ago, Candide is tailor-made for him, given his beautiful, warm tenor and endearing stage persona.
As Cunegonde, soprano Brenda Rae impressed with her stratospheric high notes, of which there are plenty in this role. As is often the case with coloratura sopranos, her lower voice doesn’t have the same impact. Predictably, the showstopping “Glitter and be Gay” was dynamite; and she had good chemistry with Candide. Returning to SFO after her success as the Old Baroness in Vanessa, mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman showed off her formidable vocal and comedic chops as a fine Old Lady, offering a crackling “I Am Easily Assimilated” and a suitably rip-roaring “What’s the Use?”
The supporting cast members, many taking on multiple roles, were all terrific. A standout was the excellent basso buffo Kevin Burdette as a vivid Pangloss/Voltaire/Cacambo/Martin. And it was good to see former leading-man tenor Richard Troxell having successfully transitioned to character tenor as a hilarious Governor/James/Captain/Vanderdendur. Kudos to Pelly who also designed the very colourful costumes.
This Candide is a high-energy show, with plenty of running around by the principals. Together with the huge amount of spoken words and no amplification, it couldn’t have been easy for the singers. But the cast was super-committed, with excellent results from everyone, no less the Orchestra. Harry Bicket, the incoming Music Director, led the SFO forces in a delicious reading of the score.
The last performance (August 25) will be particularly meaningful, as it falls on the actual birthday of Bernstein. I can only imagine there may well be a special ceremony or at least a mention in honour of the great American composer, a fitting end to this Bernstein year. Four more performances on Aug. 11, 14, 21, 25. Details, here.