Leonard Bernstein’s Candide has more versions than a shark has teeth and almost as many parents. Its genre is hard to characterize; so let’s call it an opera in the same way that The Magic Flute and Fidelio are designated operas though they contain a lot of spoken dialogue, as did the original version of Carmen. The Santa Feans new production directed by Laurent Pelly seems to be based on the composer’s final go at the work in 1989, the year before his death. This revision was made more than four decades after Candide first appeared on Broadway where it flopped.
Of all Voltaire’s gigantic literary output his novella Candide is the one that has survived the best. Many of his plays were made into opera such as Rossini’s Semiramide and Verdi’s Alzira. But you’re very unlikely to encounter them, especially if English is your sole language. But Candide is still worth a read.
The opera is clever, the staging is clever, and Bernstein was clever. But there’s a difference between cleverness and genius – a difference that I’m sure Bernstein was well aware of. After all, he’s the conductor who recognized with laser brilliance the genius of other neglected composers like Mahler. His awareness of the difference between cleverness and genius may explain why he spent so much of his career conducting instead of composing. He probably knew in his heart that he was better at the former.
So how was the show? Pelly’s direction and costumes were spot on. The sets by Chantal Thomas consisted of clever (there’s that word again) book and manuscript like structures which were manipulated to suit the picaresque story. It changes locale more often than Elizabeth Taylor changed clothes. For many years my main acquaintance with the work was with the original cast recording that somehow disappeared with the old millennium. This version was quite different. The big numbers like ‘Glitter and be Gay’ and ‘I’m So Easily Assimilated’ are still there, though the latter was moved from Buenos Aires to Cadiz. But there was a lot of material that was new to me.
Candide is an opera that somehow manages to have too much story for its music and simultaneously too much music for its story. The performers were all fine, but despite all the clever couplets things began to drag in the second act. The evening at its end seemed longer than it actually was. There was mirth aplenty, but everytime the plot nudged toward seriousness, things slowed and pretentiousness loomed.
Conductor Harry Bicket started as a baroque specialist, but has branched out to mainstream opera. His orchestra was bouncy and joined easily in the fun. But it sounded more like a Broadway orchestra than an opera ensemble. The winds, brass, and percussion were so loud that it was hard to tell that there was a string section.
Tenor Alek Shrader has a light voice which handled the undemanding title role with ease. Soprano Brenda Rae garnered the most applause for her rendition of ‘Glitter and be Gay’, Bernstein’s wonderful parody of a 19th century Italian coloratura aria. She got everything possible from the piece, though it pushed her vocal resources to her limit.
Bass Kevin Burdette played Pangloss, he of this is the best of all possible worlds. He was also Voltaire, who was written into the show as a narrator to keep the audience alert to all the myriad changes in geography and personnel. He was quite effective, but I’m prejudiced against narrators in a show. If they’re necessary it’s almost always a sign of poor dramaturgy. Burdette also performed two other roles.
Helen Schneiderman was somewhat overwhelmed by an excess of props that slightly diminished the effect that should be made by ‘I’m So Easily Assimilated’. Veteran tenor Richard Troxell had a good time playing four roles.
Everything about this production was first class. It made for an enjoyable, if a little protracted, evening. Candide’s problem is that as a comic opera it’s not anywhere up to the level of Rossini. As a comic operetta it is surpassed by Offenbach and Johann Strauss. And as a musical comedy it’s not up to the level of Stephen Sondheim who was among the battalion of authors who worked on the book. Nevertheless, this is an effervescent production that is well worth a trip to Santa Fe’s beautiful theater. The measure of Candide’s merit is that you will be glad you saw it, but will be unlikely to want to repeat the experience very often unlike Rossini’s comic masterpieces which never seem to tire an audience.
This review is of the July 31, 2018 performance.