Saturday, June 30, 2018

Santa Fe’s Candide the Best of All Possible Productions

Alek Shrader, Brenda Rae; photo Ken Howard

REVIEW: Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe, New Mexico: John Crosby Theatre

In Jamie Bernstein’s new book, Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s oldest daughter writes about the night her parents, Leonard and Felicia, were about to step out to the premiere of Candide, leaving 4-year-old Jamie behind. “But I want to see candy, too!” she cries. “Can-deee!”

Last night, the Santa Fe Opera audience got to see the candy, and it was sweet indeed. It was fitting of the company to open their vibrant new season with a work that not only celebrates the centenary of Leonard Bernstein but also heralds a time of momentous change for Santa Fe Opera.

After a decade leading the company to greater heights in every aspect of its being, outgoing General Director Charles MacKay will pass his baton to Robert Meya, who heads what the latter calls a “new generation of leadership”—a synergistic triumvirate of high-powered leaders consisting of Meya, along with Alexander Neef as artistic director, and Harry Bicket, the first designated music director in the company’s history.

What better way to initiate this new era in the company’s history than with Bernstein’s youth-oriented mid-twentieth century work, in which major writers of the time contributed to the original version of the story and lyrics: Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Bernstein himself. Voltaire titled his novella Candide, ou L’Optimisme—or more likely, “Blind Optimism”—with emphasis on the latter in this cleverly directed production.

Despite a promise to his mentor Serge Koussevitzky to shift his focus from popular to so-called “serious” music, Bernstein could not resist the draw of setting what Hellman called “the greatest satire…the greatest piece of slap-dash ever written” to his incomparably ingenious music. Indeed, Bernstein managed to say something serious with Candide at a volatile juncture in world politics, while maintaining his artistic standards. Notwithstanding its many edits and iterations, causing great frustration to the composer over the decades from its initial New York premiere in 1956, Candide has prevailed as a much-beloved and oft-performed work.

It is frequently debated whether Candide is an opera, an operetta, or a Broadway show. Perhaps, like Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, Candide can best be described as a “Broadway Opera.” The same could be said of Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène—though with a French twist. Certainly Cunegonde’s tour-de-force aria “Glitter and Be Gay” is operatic. On the other hand, the Old Lady’s “I am Easily Assimilated” is as campy a show number as it gets.

This production, using lyrics by Wilbur, Sondheim, La Touche, Hellman, Parker and Bernstein, brought an engaging mix of American and French artists, with a dash of British, to the Santa Fe stage. The singers were the main event, and though at times they were difficult to hear, overall the cast made a positive impression. 

Cunegonde and Candide can be thought of as the equivalent of a royal couple in this most ironic of tales, but, with their panoplies of mind-bending misadventures and sorrows, they are hardly Meghan and Harry. Nonetheless, tenor Alek Shrader and soprano Brenda Rae lit up the stage with their exuberant portrayals of the two protagonists.

Shrader, last heard at Santa Fe in 2010 in the title role of Albert Herring, made quite a splash this past season in the Seattle Opera’s much-touted Beatrice and Benedict. His lyrical tenor was dulcet and fetching, and although he could have been a bit more varied in his use of dynamics, his portrayal of the beleaguered Tom Rakewell-like character was appropriately ingenuous.

Grammy-nominated Rae, who dazzled last season’s Santa Fe audience as Lucia di Lammermoor, made her role debut as Cunegonde. One awaits her “Glitter” aria with as much anticipation as the Zerbinetta’s Großmächtige Prinzessin aria in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (to be performed here this season), and Rae delivered her showpiece with panache. Her middle range was somewhat lacking, but her high notes were solid, and as if they were not already high enough, she added a few stratospheric tones to please the discriminating ear.

Kevin Burdette, SFeO chorus; photo, Ken Howard
As is traditional, several of the roles are multiple cast. Baritone Kevin Burdette shouldered the heaviest burden, playing Voltaire, Pangloss, Martin and Mocambo, and he carried it very well indeed. His considerable comic gifts, which he demonstrated superbly in last season’s Seattle Opera Cosi Fan Tutte, were even more splendidly displayed in each of his scene-stealing scenes, especially those in which he delightfully channeled Adolph Green as Pangloss.

Helene Schneiderman was a delight to watch. Her bright mezzo was lighter and airier than the typical timbre for the role of the Old Lady, and at times she was difficult to hear, but with her great comic flair, she fit perfectly and with ease into her character.

Helene Schneiderman; photo, Ken Howard
Also making his debut in multiple roles was American tenor and former apprentice Richard Troxell as the Governor, James, Vanderdendur and Ragotski. Troxell, who is at ease in both traditional and contemporary repertoire, recently performed to great acclaim in Elizabeth Cree, a new work with a libretto by Mark Campbell, librettist for last season’s Santa Fe hit, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. He easily transitioned from one character into another.

Susanne Sheston’s chorus, a luxury ensemble of potential solo voices, handled the many physical demands of their roles with aplomb.

The duo of stage director and costume designer Laurent Pelly, and Parisian-born scenic designer Chantal Thomas, brought a French twist to this production. Pelly, who debuted with the company in 2003, is known for his forays into his native repertoire, both theatrical and operatic, and showed his Gallic sensibilities, both in his direction and in his designs. A veteran of comic works such as Massenet’s Cendrillon and Berlioz’ Béatrice et Bénédict, Pelly showed his affinity for pratfalls and mugging to its optimal best. There was quite a bit of movement and activity on the stage, perhaps too much at times. The costumes were brilliantly executed and uniquely French. Who else but a Frenchman could bring off women’s dresses fashioned of 10-franc notes festooned with an image of Voltaire himself?

A frequent collaborator with Pelly, Parisian-born scenic designer Chantal Thomas created a unit set that featured books in various shapes and incarnations, symbolizing the kind of storytelling of which Voltaire was a master. Props such as a toy boat in the sea storm scene added to the storybook atmosphere. With the stage opened to the background of mountains, strata of mystical clouds, and an ever-changing sunset lit sky, the overall effect was quite appealing.

Duane Schuler's lighting was impressively creative, and the eye-catching, stunningly varied projections done by Benjamin Pearcy (who designed last season's The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs) worked beautifully in every scene, culminating in an exquisite, multihued garden that grew before the audience's eyes.

Former chief conductor Harry Bicket made an auspicious first appearance as Santa Fe’s new music director. With his vast experience in Baroque repertoire with the English Concert and other widely known period orchestras, he brought a Baroque sensitivity and delicate balance to the refined subtleties of Bernstein’s finely wrought score. Bicket is a true professional; every inch the conductor in the most positive sense.

To quote MacKay, “In opera, as in life, always expect the unexpected.” In this vibrant production of Candide, the unanticipated went hand in hand with the tried and true. In these trying times, the political implications of Voltaire’s cautionary tale ring truer than ever—little digs at politicians in the dialogue emphasized the relevance of the story in contemporary terms.

Candide cast, SFeO chorus; photo, Ken Howard
Leonard Bernstein’s Candide runs from June 29 to August 25, the latter Leonard Bernstein’s actual 100th birthday.


Photo credits: Ken Howard
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

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