We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Sunday, August 12, 2018


Leonard Bernstein's Candide at Santa Fe Opera (photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)

If you think you've seen and heard Candide, guess again. If you want to experience this brilliant work in all its glory, you'd do well to get yourself to Santa Fe, New Mexico for one of the two final performances of the season.

The success of this production rests on many shoulders. We scarcely know where to begin but Maestro Harry Bicket's superb conducting resulted in applause almost as vociferous as that received by the presence in the audience of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg!  The light-hearted music composed by Bernstein seemed to underscore the dark humor of the book, based on the satirical 18th c. novella written by Voltaire. As in Mozart's music, a melody in a major key may drift momentarily into a minor key; Bicket's attention to these shifts made for a poignant listening experience.

The scholarship of dramaturg Matthew Epstein, Senior Artistic Advisor at Santa Fe Opera, must have involved some intense activity in choosing which scenes and dialogue to include and what to leave out. The work itself began its life in the middle of the 20th c. and was not successful. It took many decades and the inclusion and later exclusion of a parade of lyricists to ensure its ultimate success. The version we saw last night, one of four extant iterations, is the Old Vic version, an expansion for the Scottish Opera of the Hal Prince/Hugh Wheeler version.

This is an exception to the maxim that "too many cooks spoil the broth". Voltaire's novella provides enough material for a variety of treatments. We will not get into a discussion of Candide's fluid identity. We will call it an opera as long as it is presented unamplified. Although we heard this version recently at Carnegie Hall with a fine cast and all the original music, the voices were badly amplified and we missed all the clever lyrics. Last night, the talented cast was quite intelligible and were supported by excellent titles, in case one missed a word.

In this story of innocence betrayed and reality accepted, we are exposed to countless trials and tribulations; we witness the heroes of the story pursuing their ideals and surviving their hardships. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the public has such affection for the work.

The literary work upon which it is based is Voltaire's 1759 novella, a satiric attack on war, religious persecution, and the positivist philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who claimed that whatever happens in this world is divinely ordered and for the best.

What we didn't know was that one of the episodes is based upon true events. In Lisbon, the horrendous death toll of an earthquake resulted in religious persecutions meant to "appease God". Well!  If that doesn't sound like some contemporary stuff going on in the Middle East we will eat the score for breakfast!

If anyone doesn't know the story, it involves the picaresque adventures of an innocent youth named Candide and his beloved Cousin Cunegonde who were tutored by one Dr. Pangloss, a stand-in for Leibniz. The two survive the horrors of war, shipwrecks, deceits and betrayals, as well as the aforementioned auto-da-fe;  they get continually separated and reunited more than once until at the end they decide to have a quiet life with modest pleasures.

Director Laurent Pelly conceived the work in almost cartoon style with highly exaggerated gestures; although we personally did not care for this style, the audience loved it; we do admit that it made the somber end more impactful--kinda like a punch in the gut. There were quite a few moist eyes to be seen and sniffles to be heard.

Pelly's costume designs for the principals were as colorful and sweet as candy. The excellent chorus, comprising Santa Fe Opera Apprentices led by the always wonderful Susanne Sheston, sang clearly, and were dressed in period costumes executed in fabric that emulated printed words on a page. Chantal Thomas' set design was minimalistic but also reflected the work's literary origins. Projections by 59 Productions augmented the simple set.

As the eponymous Candide, tenor Alek Shrader was given several more arias than were assigned to the character in either the Broadway version or the New York City Opera version (both of which we enjoyed). He was convincing in his portrayal and his light tenor was musical throughout; we particularly enjoyed "It must be so".

Soprano Brenda Rae sang and acted up a storm. Cunegonde was never an innocent and Ms. Rae's delivery of "Glitter and Be Gay", one of our favorite coloratura arias, had just the right edge of irony to it.

Jarrett Ott, one of our favorite baritones, has become a regular at Santa Fe Opera; we loved his performance in the role of Maximilian to which he brought his own style ,substance, and wit.

It was very satisfying to witness mezzo-soprano Gina Perregrino, well remembered from Manhattan School of Music and International Vocal Arts Institute, fulfilling the promise we observed over the past six years. Her performance of Paquette was as on-point dramatically as it was vocally.

As The Old Lady, mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman tackled this wonderful role with gusto. There were no flaws in her portrayal but there was something about the performance that begged for more presence.  Perhaps it was the costume which failed to limn the character. 

In the customary doubling of roles as the storyteller Voltaire and the character of the indestructible Doctor Pangloss we heard Santa Fe Opera regular Kevin Burdette, whose resonant bass rang out with authority. We didn't even recognize him in the roles of Martin and the slave/valet Cacambo.

Anthony Robin Schneider appeared as the Grand Inquisitor, and also as the Baron with only his face showing through a hole in his portrait. Similarly, Kathleen Reveille's brief appearance as the Baroness was also as a face in her portrait. This same technique was used when The Old Lady arrived in Spain and sang "I am easily assimilated" with her head appearing atop a parade of costumes painted on a board each with different Spanish costumes. In the latter case it was merely distracting

With a couple roles apiece, bass-baritone Erik van Heyningen and tenor Abraham Bretón impressed as the two rivals for Cunegonde's sexual favors; the former portrayed the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris whilst the latter took the role of Don Issachar the Jew.

Tenor Richard Troxell also sang several roles and was so successfully costumed that we didn't recognize him.

It was an altogether stunning Santa Fe Opera premiere and we recommend it highly--not only for Bernstein's magnificent music (Oh how we loved the fugue-like quartet for Candide, Cunegonde, Maximilian, and Paquette!) and the clever lyrics, but also for the highly resonant stance of Voltaire against religious excess, silly philosophies, war, and greed.

(c) meche kroop

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