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Side view of theater at dusk with white baffles

The Best of All Possible Worlds

By Mark Tiarks

The Best of All Possible Worlds


Born on August 25, 1918, Leonard Bernstein was one of America’s most prodigiously gifted musicians. His meteoric rise to fame began at age 25, when he conducted the New York Philharmonic on very short notice and with no rehearsal. The concert included works by Schumann, Wagner, and Richard Strauss, and was broadcast live on CBS Radio.

Bernstein’s energy could leave just about any contemporary multi-tasker in the shade. For example, while composing Candide, he was also guest conducting orchestras around the world, named as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, teaching at Brandeis University, writing and hosting the ground-breaking television shows Omnibus and Young People’s Concerts, and composing West Side Story.

Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Candide will be a centerpiece of “Leonard Bernstein at 100,” the world-wide celebration of Bernstein’s life and work. (And while we can’t say more at the moment, stay tuned for news about additional Santa Fe Opera centennial programming!)

“I Am Easily Assimilated”

Bernstein’s musical eclecticism and versatility were the perfect match for the kaleidoscopic range of Voltaire’s novel. Candide and his fiancée Cunegonde had been taught by Dr. Pangloss that “All’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” but their voyage through life soon flounders on separation, earthquakes, volcanoes, assault, torture, prostitution, poverty, and warfare. They careen from Westphalia to Lisbon to Paris to Buenos Aires to Surinam to Venice, buoyed by Bernstein’s brilliant interpretations of classic European dances, with waltzes, gavottes, tangos, hornpipes, and barcarolles propelling the action.

“You Were Dead, You Know”

On Sunday, February 2, 1957 at the Martin Beck Theater on West 45th Street, Candide collapsed at around 11pm. Despite the formidable talents of librettist Lillian Hellman, lyricists Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, and Dorothy Parker, stage director Tyrone Guthrie, and a cast led by Barbara Cook and Robert Rounseville, their “comic operetta” closed after 73 performances. Any resuscitation of such an infamous flop seemed hopeless.

“Ah, But Love Will Find a Way”

Fueled by memories of Bernstein’s score, and the superb cast album released despite the show’s commercial failure, theater producers became intrigued by the challenge of making the show succeed somehow. A 1966 Los Angeles production cast Carroll O’Connor as Pangloss. Harold Prince’s 1973 staging-in-the-round was a theatrical tour de force and a Broadway success, albeit with significantly reduced musical forces. In 1982 Harold Prince launched Candide’s migration to the opera house, with an acclaimed staging for the New York City Opera. The “Scottish Opera version” premiered in 1988 and led to Bernstein’s famous concert performances with the London Symphony Orchestra a year later.

“Oh, Happy Pair”

Candide will be helmed by SFO’s Chief Conductor Harry Bickett and stage director/costume designer Laurent Pelly, whose productions of La Belle Hélène, Cinderella, and Don Pasquale charmed Santa Fe audiences in 2003, 2006, and 2014, respectively. “To stage Candide, a unique and brilliant work which navigates Voltaire’s masterpiece with humor, audacity and irony, is a dream come true,” says Pelly. “We will travel through a world where the characters come to life as if escaping from the author’s manuscript in their pursuit of happiness.”

“Oh, Happy We”

We couldn’t be happier with our cast, and we’re certain you’ll be happy as well. The title role calls for the innocence of an Albert Herring, the comedic charm of Ernesto in Don Pasquale, and Tonio’s vocal panache in The Daughter of the Regiment. In other words, Alek Shrader, whose SFO credits include all the above since his 2010 debut. Brenda Rae dazzled audiences in 2016 in Lucia di Lammermoor. She brings her stratospheric soprano to Cunegonde, a character who takes a somewhat more pragmatic approach than Lucia when faced with a less-than first- choice lover. As she tosses off high Cs, Ds, and an E flat in “Glitter and Be Gay,” Cunegonde sings her survival motto: “If I’m not pure at least my jewels are!”

Alek Shrader and Brenda Rae are joined by mezzo-soprano Helene Schneidermann as the easily assimilated Old Lady. Tenor and SFO apprentice alumnus Richard Troxell as the Governor of Buenos Aires, and bass-baritone Kevin Burdette, doing quadruple duty in roles including Voltaire and Dr. Pangloss.


No need to roam the entire Southwest, searching for treasure high and low when Candide and four other great operas await you in Santa Fe. And in the best of all possible cosmic convergences, Candide closes our 2018 season on August 25, the exact centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. Join the party and help us celebrate!