This summer, the Santa Fe Opera will join the 2018 Leonard Bernstein Centennial in a big way.
On Friday, SFO will open its 62nd season with a full production of “Candide,” Bernstein’s Broadway musical-cum-opera. Re-envisioned by French stage director and costume designer Laurent Pelly, it promises to be fresh, acerbic and memorable.
At 55, Pelly is reinventing grand opera for the 21st century. If you saw The Met Live in HD’s production of Massenet’s “Cendrillon,” you know why Pelly’s changing the opera world. In 2006, he concocted a witty Cinderella in Santa Fe in a co-production with New York’s famed opera house. Smart and sophisticated, Pelly’s inventive style seems perfect for a new “Candide.”
“Candide” hovers somewhere between grand opera and musical comedy. It opened on Broadway in 1956 and has undergone a number of transformations. What’s known as the 1988 Scottish Opera version is the one SFO has chosen to mount.
Based on Voltaire’s 1759 satirical novel about the excesses of happy-face optimism, the story centers on a young man and his fiancée, Cunegonde. They’ve been raised to believe: “Everything’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” But an adventure-filled journey demonstrates the opposite. Candide survives many obstacles – war, poverty, a shipwreck, an earthquake and the Spanish Inquisition. Separations, strife and a reunion finally teach a different lesson: Life is complicated, perilous and unpredictable. Chastened, Candide and Cunegonde finally seek to tend their own garden and grow old together.
Bernstein’s “Candide” had two goals: to revitalize Voltaire’s parody of shallow optimism and mock American parochialism. Created during the McCarthy era, the American version aimed at the dark heart of political paranoia. As deep-state conspiracies spread in the summer of 2018, what a good idea to stage a fresh “Candide.”
Recognizing the work’s popularity, SFO has scheduled nine performances, beginning Friday, and concluding Aug. 25 – Bernstein’s 100th birthday.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.