When Voltaire wrote Candide in 1759, he was already a well-established author in his native France and beyond, celebrated for his philosophical musings and satirical wit. Leonard Bernstein, of course, was also well-known when he composed an operatic score for Candide in 1956; how well does it all hold up in 2018? The Santa Fe Opera certainly thinks it aged well—they opened their season with it, and I understand why—but we have a despot in charge, and a dangerous one at that.
In Candide, here directed by Laurent Pelly and conducted by Harry Bickett, Bernstein's energetic score ridicules religion and the military, government and its tentacular elements—but, perhaps most bitingly, philosophers, of which Voltaire was and remains one of the most well-known.
Voltaire's inspiration came from various sources, from the 1755 Lisbon earthquake to the Seven Years' Wars. Not an 18th-century French philosophy buff? Not a problem. Based on Hugh Wheeler's 1970s interpretation of the opera, the story and characters are timeless and relatable, if not necessarily likable. In a nutshell, the shitty stuff in Voltaire's world was making him and his smartypants peers bummed out, and it was at odds with the happy-go-lucky, popular theory of Optimism, a school of thought introduced by philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. Now, it seems more than a wee bit quaint, but the gist is: Don't sweat it, because everything works out in the end. The opera's humor derives from a loosely disguised criticism of Leibniz (here "Dr. Pangloss"), who encouraged us to think of life as "the best of all possible worlds." Sure could have fooled the titular Candide. Dear Candide faces crises from every direction and must traverse a veritable gauntlet throughout the multi-hour production, which at times seems to lurch into something fantastic—or at least humorous—but never quite hits the mark.
The show's cerebral pace is set early-on thanks to a striking set design by Chantal Thomas, comprised of gigantic, opened books. A look at the life of the privileged Candide (played to the hilt by Alek Shrader) at first is humorous, watching him matchy-matchy with his love, the beautiful Cunégonde (a charming if shrill Brenda Rae). The drama starts early and is somewhat unrelenting, even when it's supposed to be funny.
Intriguingly, the show started with the American National Anthem; taking a kneel seemed tempting and also absurd, until I felt a soft hand patting my shoulder. When I looked behind, I observed another audience member, a striking blond, crying, who said loudly, "Save this country!" It was an honest and tearful a call to arms, a much more moving message than any I derived from the show itself.
But that's just it—at the end of the day, this is more of a musical than an opera. Candide is a simple story, and for the most part moves briskly. And yet! It's supposed to effortlessly make us laugh; unfortunately, an audience shouldn't have to come prepared with a mood for trying.
Candide has never played at the Santa Fe Opera before, and it begs the question of why: Candide, so clueless and so privileged, is a character rife for comparisons with 45. The problem is, we never get a sense for whether we're cheering on this doofus or wishing for his swift and (probably) unfunny demise.
Bernstein's score is famously rollicking (um, hello, "Glitter and Be Gay"), but he's no Puccini. To my worldly readers, try to imagine this comparison: I grew up in central Florida, where a VHS copy of Oklahoma on a fuzzy 12-inch TV was far more captivating than SFO's rendition of Candide. And that's too bad. The fluff is fully fluffy, but the parts that should feel scrappy never get campy enough.
In short? Skip Candide.