When baritone Kevin Burdette strolls on stage in Santa Fe Opera’s dazzling new production of “Candide,” he enters as the famous 18th-century writer Voltaire. Dressed in period costume – wig, waistcoat and satin britches – Burdette’s Voltaire is the picture of Enlightenment refinement. Calmly, he surveys the stage.
The set is an oversized, picture-book idea of a writing desk piled with sheaves of white papers. Voltaire walks on and among various ledgers. He passes a huge document that curls up into the air like a great wave. It will later serve as a mini stage. When he notices the audience, Voltaire quizzically surveys the crowd and finally begins his droll tale about a young man schooled in optimism whose disaster-ridden experience tests his innocent outlook.
It’s a dry beginning to Leonard Bernstein’s muscular operetta, ably led by Conductor Harry Bicket,
Santa Fe Opera has chosen to celebrate the 2018 Bernstein centennial in a big way. The company hired the much-in-demand French director Laurent Pelly and his creative team to concoct a fresh production of the much-revised 1956 work.
Episodic by nature, the plot rapidly tumbles from its beginning in a comic German castle to all points on the compass. Candide’s journey includes conscription into war, a shipwreck, an earthquake, a harrowing journey across the ocean, an encounter with the Inquisition and golden respite in Eldorado. Projecting various images on all those blank stage pages, the director conjures battlefields, dungeons, jungles, carnivals and finally, an abundant garden where all confusion and torments resolve in the beauty of nature.
Employing exaggeration, a satirist’s sharpest tool, Pelly creates imaginative costumes that stream with text, money graphics, rags and feathers. The costumes, like the projections, hilariously underscore the absurdity of every scene.
The cast achieves the same level of satire: Burdette adroitly delivers Voltaire, Dr. Pangloss, Cacambo and Martin; Soprano Brenda Rae takes the coy Cunegonde through all her adventures with high notes, spirits and charm. Tenor Alek Shrader (Candide) is the straight arrow until he awakens after his umpteenth disaster and finally accepts the world as it is. The thrilling finale builds from a solitary recognition, then the ensemble joins him to sing “Make Our Garden Grow.” Nature blooms as Bernstein’s magnificent big, final statement concludes the opera.
The company balanced Bernstein’s cagey satire opening weekend with a searingly realistic production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Santa Fe revived the late Lee Blakeley’s gritty 2010 production by inviting Director Matthew Ozawa to underscore all the cross-cultural fault lines.
Central to the story is a Japanese child bride’s fierce embrace of all things American. Evocatively portrayed by soprano Kelly Kaduce, Cio-Cio-San denies her religion, family and country to fully embrace an arranged marriage to Lt. Pinkerton (tenor A. J. Glueckert). His flippant attitude toward two contracts, a 999-year lease on a bride and a cottage, signal his plan to abandon both when he feels like it.
Conductor John Fiore gave a nuanced reading of Puccini’s rich score, subtly weaving signature motifs together through the ritualized first meeting, bustling contractual arrangements, the wedding ceremony itself and the incomparably beautiful love duet as night descends.
After intermission, enchantment gives way to hard reality three years later. Cio-Cio-San appears in Western dress to underscore her unswerving commitment to the absent Pinkerton. She takes the American flag, which Pinkerton had proudly suspended between shoji screens, and wraps herself in it. When she reveals their son, she wraps him in it. And in the final denouement, the flag again is key.
Santa Fe’s Blakeley-Ozawa-Fiore production of “Butterfly” is a towering achievement. If you’ve seen Puccini’s beloved work before, see it again.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.