Review: Bernstein’s “Candide” Opens 2018 Santa Fe Opera Season – June 29, 2018

Santa Fe Opera opened its 2018 season with a lively new production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” from French director Laurent Pelly. The centennial of the composer’s birth was observed with this first performance of “Candide” in Santa Fe Opera history.

A strong cast was led by stellar performances from Alek Shrader, Brenda Rae, Kevin Burdette, Helene Schneiderman and Jarrett Ott.

Alek Shrader’s Candide

The title character, Candide – played by Oklahoma tenor Alek Shrader – has been raised in a baronial household despite being an illegitimate relative. There, Candide and the baron’s legitimate daughter, Cunegonde fall in love, to the dismay of the household. Shrader’s Candide is banished, and begins a series of wacky adventures.

Bernstein has written luscious melodies for Candide which perfectly fit Shrader’s warm, lyric tenor voice. Highlights include Shrader’s affecting performances of It Must Be So and the fantasy Ballad of El Dorado with Lillian Hellman’s charming lyrics “Up a seashell mountain, across a primrose sea.”

[Below: Alek Shrader as Candide; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Performing a character who is almost always at the center of the action, Shrader is rarely offstage. He was an engaging presence throughout the evening, a fine singing actor with a winsome persona and the comic skills and stamina necessary to make this lead part a success.

[Below: Voltaire/Pangloss (Kevin Burdette) takes note that Candide (Alek Shrader, in center of white-uniformed soldiers) has been conscripted into the Bulgarian Army; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Brenda Rae’s Cunegonde

Wisconsin soprano Brenda Rae proved an adept commedienne in Bernstein’s light-hearted composition. She was an ebullient Cunegonde, whose aria Glitter and Be Gay contains the most famous music in “Candide”. 

[Below: Cunegonde (Brenda Rae) performs “Glitter and Be Gay”; editd image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Rae brilliantly performed the showstopper and was rewarded with a sustained ovation from the responsive Santa Fe audience.

[Below: Candide (Alek Shrader, left) faces a series of adventures, most of are in pursuit of Cunegonde (Brenda Rae, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

This is Rae’s second venture in a Laurent Pelly production at Santa Fe Opera, with whom she collaborated in her Santa Fe Opera debut season [Brenda Rae, Michael Fabiano Impress in Pelly’s Party-Time “Traviata” – Santa Fe Opera, July 29, 2013.]

Rae’s lyric coloratura voice has also been associated with the high drama and vocal fireworks of Donizetti [Review: Brenda Rae’s Stunning Lucia di Lammermoor – Santa Fe Opera, July 1, 2017]. She has also appeared in Santa Fe previously in operatic comedy [Review: A Hilarious “Impresario” Creates a “Rossignol” Land of Enchantment – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2014.]

Rae has a palpable chemistry with Shrader, with whom she has performed comic baroque opera [Review: Blythe, Rae, Shrader Sizzle in Seattle Opera’s Saucy “Semele” – February 25, 2015].

Kevin Burdette’s Voltaire, Pangloss, Cacambo and Martin

Of the several performing editions of “Candide”, the Santa Fe Opera has chosen the Scottish Opera/Old Vic version, in which four characters are played by the same artist – Voltaire, the extreme optimist Pangloss, the extreme pessimist Martin and Cacambo, who becomes Candide’s servant in the protagonist’s later adventures.

Multi-talented Tennessee bass-buffo Kevin Burdette assumed all four roles.

[Below: Kevin Burdette as Voltaire/Pangloss; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Since his hilarious debut in another zany 1950s American comic opera [see Loving “The Last Savage”: Over the Top Menotti Charms at Santa Fe Opera – August 5, 2011], he has become Santa Fe Opera’s “go to” bass-baritone in comic roles and contemporary works. Burdette has sung in nine different operas at the Santa Fe Opera, appearing in six of the last eight seasons.

Burdette is especially noted for buffo roles with their broad comedy and tongue-twisting vocal lines, to which he adds an extraordinary athleticism [See Buff Buffo: An Interview with Kevin Burdette.]

His performance as General Boum was one of the Santa Fe Opera’s most memorable comic episodes of the past decade [Susan Graham’s Star Glows in Offenbach’s Sexy, Witty “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2013.].

I was pleased to see Burdette assume the lead bass roles of Voltaire and Pangloss, and his successful characterizations of the lively Cacambo and the grumpy Martin.

[Below: Candide (Alek Shrader, left) and his companion Cacambo (Kevin Burdette, right) have, for the moment, escaped trouble; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Helene Schneiderman’s Old Lady

The part of The Old Lady was assumed by the eminent lyric mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman. She was in great voice in her solo ballad I Am Easily Assimilated and hilarious as the lead-in to the ensemble What’s the Use?

[Below: The Old Lady (Helen Schneiderman, right) shares some important information with Candide (Alek Shrader, left); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Schneiderman, who brilliantly performed the dramatic role of an elderly, uptight Baroness two seasons ago [Review: An Elegant Production of Barber’s “Vanessa” at Santa Fe Opera, July 30, 2016], demonstrated her flair for farce with The Old Lady’s over-the-top antics.

Jarrett Ott’s Maximilian and Gina Perregrino’s Pacquette; 

Pennsylvania baritone Jarrett Ott sang the role of the Cunegonde’s smug brother Maximilian, with an impressive, pleasing lyric baritone.

[Below: Jarrett Ott as Maximilian; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Ott, who has successfully embraced American musical comedy as a “leading man” elsewhere [see Review: Glimmerglass Festival’s Rip-Roaring “Oklahoma!” – July 14, 2017] drew laughs as he navigated Maximilian’s zany adventures.

The role of the servant girl Pacquette was assumed by Washington DC mezzo-soprano Gina Perregrino, a 2018 Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Artist. Like the three other students tutored by Burdette’s Pangloss (Shrader’s Candide, Rae’s Cunegonde and Ott’s Maximilian), Perregrino’s Pacquette finds herself in wild and funny situations at various times in the opera.

Other Cast Members

The role of the Baron was sung by New Zealand bass Anthony Robin Schneider, the baroness by New York mezzo-soprano Kathleen Reville.

Maryland tenor Richard Troxell sang the roles of James, the Captain, the Governor and Vanderdendur. Mexican tenor Araham Bretón was Don Issachar and the Crook. California bass-baritone Erik von Heyningen was the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris and Ragotski.

Maestro Harry Bicket and the Musical Performance

The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and chorus of Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Artists performed luminously under the baton of Maestro Harry Bicket, the Santa Fe Opera’s Music Director. The chorus master is Susanne Sheston.

[Maestro Harry Bicket; edited image, based on a publicity photograph from]

Laurent Pelly’s Direction and Set Design and Chantal Thomas’ Scenic Design

French director Laurent Pelly, whose work I have praised in venues from Paris [Hayseed Hilarity: The Pelly “L’Elisir” – Opéra National de Paris, September 16, 2007] to San Francisco [Matthew Polenzani Triumphs in Pelly’s Take on “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2013], created a production with all the razzle-dazzle one expects for Bernstein’s “Candide”.

Of the numerous extant versions of “Candide”, the Scottish Opera/Old Vic version from 1989 is the shortest. The rapid scene changes take us from Germany’s Rhineland, to Portugal, to Holland, to various points in South America, including the fabled land of El Dorado. The story’s wide-ranging scope makes for a full evening.

[Below: Candide (Alek Shrader, standing, center) has become bored in the utopian land of El Dorado; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Pelly’s vibrant costumes and Chantal Thomas’ sets (that made use of the open mountain vistas and New Mexico sky) were a visual treat.

Projections from 59 productions, lighting designed by Duane Schuler contributed to the evening’s success. Matthew A. Epstein was the dramaturg.


I recommend the cast, musical performance and production both for the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.