Perhaps a few too many.
In yet another revision of this melodious, mettlesome stage work (Scottish Opera – Old Vic version), SFO has taken an approach somewhat akin to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the New World. To that end, renowned director Laurent Pelly has unleashed a cornucopia of no holds barred comic busy-ness in dogged pursuit of high toned “entertainment,” pure and simple. That Mr. Pelly and his tireless company succeeded in that pursuit, is evidenced by the near constant ripples of laughter elicited from the packed house.
To this viewer, they weren’t arguably always the right laughs. Pelly couldn’t seem to settle on one style and so he incorporated many: slapstick, operetta, cinematic honesty, caricature, romcom, farce, sitcom, and perhaps most wearing, an overly melodramatic, deliberately artificial mugging to the audience. That his willing performers delivered all this with utter commitment cannot be disputed, and I must report they were rewarded for their abandon with frequent ovations.
Candide began life as a notorious 1956 Broadway flop, most notable for a Columbia cast recording, which showcased Bernstein’s eclectic score. After the show languished for some years, Harold Prince devised a 105-minute version with a new libretto by Hugh Wheeler, which was such a success at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1973 that it moved to a two year hit Broadway run in 1974. It was this lean and mean, immersive, interactive production that won me over, and I saw it four times. At last this meritorious score was married to a sassy, witty book and its previous problematic lack of Voltairean elan and coherent focus were fixed! Mais, attendez-vous. . .
Now that it was a hit, opera houses expressed interest in a proscenium version in two acts. Prince (and others) agreed to continue to tinker with it and began adding back in characters and songs that were extraneous. The temptation seems to have been great to re-order and darken the plot, resurrect good numbers that are nevertheless unnecessary, and worst, give enjoyable characters a second or third number that deserve to remain in Lenny’s trunk.
From the original recording, “Quiet” and “What’s the Use?” made a return to no real dramatic advantage other than being interesting tunes aurally. “The Venice Gavotte” had been re-purposed in 1974 as a delightful expository quartet (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, no less). That quartet still opens the show, but now we have an action-stopping Gavotte in Act II as well, reprising that material. I have not yet seen any company make the weak material of “Dear Boy” and “We Are Women” work, no matter how high the caliber of the collaborators.
My curmudgeonly posturing notwithstanding, having made their choice of edition, SFO has wholeheartedly embraced it, lavishing it with superlative production values. Chantal Thomas has provided a versatile, constantly morphing set design that is a director’s dream: all levels, steps, insets, parapets, nooks, crannies and foldouts. In deft obeisance to Voltaire the look is based on a wide variation of oversized books and pages, some curled, some flat, some arched at ever changing relationship to one other. On many occasions, appropriate vibrant projections designed by 59 Productions effectively decorate the white surface.
Director Pelly has also designed the fantastical costumes as is his wont, and they are over-the-top delightful. Many of them are pale colors, decorated with written lines from (one must presume) the novel Candide. The leading characters are a colorful lot, ranging from down at heel bag lady to kept courtesan to bastard peasant to conniving royalty and all points in between. Cunegonde’s ravishing red gown was alone worth the price of admission.
Duane Schuler has contributed his usual fine lighting design, with a couple of breathtaking “white light” isolations that momentarily sobered up the comedic proceedings. Only the follow spot work was a bit variable and not always on the mark. A small quibble about the projected translations: On more than one occasion, the timing prompted the audience to react to reading the joke before the performer actually finished the joke. A little fine-tuning would benefit actor and spectator alike.
Harry Bicket led an enthusiastic and accomplished reading of the score. With “Bernstein at 100” celebrations in full swing, it is impossible to avoid the overplayed overture this year, and while the pit had the notes in place, the effervescence needed found the pace just a notch too slow. Once past the opening, Maestro Bicket found all the zing, irony, and occasional pathos in Bernstein’s accomplished pastiche. The cast could really not have been better.
In the title role, Alek Shrader is giving his finest performance I have experienced to date. The music is a perfect fit for Mr. Shrader’s sweet, well-schooled tenor, and he caressed many a limpid phrase with poised, honeyed tone. But his Candide is anything but a crooning, put upon patsy, and he finds endless comic energy to inform his character and delight the audience. He throws himself unselfconsciously into everything he is asked to do, and if his Valley Girl jumping up and down, hands flailing in indecision didn’t make you laugh the first time, perhaps it will the fourth or fifth. He will die trying.
Indeed, his animated physical feats are so manic, that it is completely stunning when Alek remains stock still as the finally defeated Candide, perfectly crafting the penultimate selection, “Nothing More Than This,” the evening’s finest musical moment. In a perfect production, this might be moved to an earlier moment in the show, so it doesn’t somewhat upstage “Make Our Garden Grow,” almost identical in sentiment and immediately following. But no matter, Alek Shrader made musical magic with both.
Brenda Rae was as spirited, determined, and sexed up a Cunegonde as you could ever wish to see. It goes without saying that she sings brilliantly, with excellent diction, secure tone, and absolute assurance in all registers. Cunegonde’s music often lies in the lower middle, and while Ms. Rae’s attractive instrument doesn’t live there naturally, she negotiated those passages with skill and aplomb.
It is above the staff that this soprano soars, and her flights of fancy in the form of effortless coloratura in a definitive “Glitter and Be Gay,” all the while performing comic physical moves, stopped the show with roars of approval. It is to her credit that Brenda always found a way to make the character likable, even as she is driven by self-serving motives.
The Old Lady makes a delayed appearance in the script but when Helene Schneiderman finally arrives, she threatens to dominate her every scene. For such a diminutive woman, Ms. Schneiderman exudes an oversized presence, sporting a hilarious Mittel-European accent and a rich, full-bodied mezzo. Her traversal of “I Am Easily Assimilated” was a highlight. As the chorus moved around oversized costume plate cards missing the “head,” she daffily moved from one to the other to position her face to complete the picture.
The party trick of having one performer quadruple as Voltaire, Pangloss, Cacambo, and Martin held no challenge for the versatile baritone Kevin Burdette. Moving effortlessly between the four, Mr. Burdette found a highly distinctive accent and demeanor for each, modulating his well-schooled vocalizing to create a slightly different sound as required. As the more-often-than-not narrator, he kept the evening’s pace on sure and fleet footing.
Baritone Jarrett Ott was a delectably preening Maximilian, his pomposity underlined by his virile, buzzy singing. (Spoiler Alert) Mr. Ott was especially amusing in several scenes of fluid sexuality and cross-register chirping. Gina Perregrino made the most of her stage time as the slutty servant girl Paquette, her attractive mezzo contributing solidly to the musical mix and her perky personality keeping darker moments light.
Richard Troxell brought his steely, resounding tenor to bear on four roles that are not always assigned to the same performer: James, Captain, Governor, and Vanderdendur. Mr. Troxell’s ringing top and cleanly articulated phrases served all of them well, but “Bon Voyage” was his personal best. Tenor Abraham BretÛn had an amusing turn as the overbearing Jew Don Issachar and also embodied the Crook. Rounding out the cast, bass-baritone Erik van Heyningen successfully impersonated the hypocritical Cardinal Archbishop of Paris and also played Ragotski.
The Apprentice Artists’ chorus made an inestimable contribution to the evening’s success, tirelessly doubling countless characters, seldom off stage, possessed of boundless energy, and singing wondrously under the direction of Chorus Master Susanne Sheston. Rarely is so much asked of an opera chorus in a staging, and director Pelly has gotten incomparable results from this invaluable, talented group of young performers.
At the end of the day, there is much to celebrate in this highly accomplished, thoroughly professional version of Candide. If it may not be everyone’s “best of all possible worlds,” it is a highly infectious, enthusiastically rendered piece of musical theatre. Any questions?
Cast and production information:
Voltaire/Pangloss/Cacambo/Martin: Kevin Burdette; Baron/Grand Inquisitor: Anthony Robin Schneider; Candide: Alek Shrader; Baroness: Kathleen Reveille; Maximilian: Jarrett Ott; Cunegonde: Brenda Rae; Paquette: Gina Perregrino; James/Captain/Governor/Vanderdendur: Richard Troxell; The Old Lady: Helene Schneiderman; Don Issachar/Crook: Abraham BretÛn; Cardinal Archbishop of Paris/Ragotski: Erik van Heyningen; Conductor: Harry Bicket; Director and Costume Design: Laurent Pelly; Set Design: Chantal Thomas; Lighting Design: Duane Schuler; Projection Design: 59 Productions; Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston
image_description=Scene from Candide [Photo courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]
product_title=Bernstein Bemuses in New Mexico
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Scene from Candide [Photo courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]