By Mark Swed, Music Critic
So is “West Side Story” an opera, or what?
For a semi-staged performance last month at the Hollywood Bowl, Gustavo Dudamel found an ideal balance between the Broadway roots and operatic potential of Leonard Bernstein’s classic musical. Now he is conducting a full-scale operatic production of “West Side Story” for the storied Salzburg Festival, in a town where tourist lines are equally long for “Sound of Music” excursions or visits to Mozart’s birth house.
The new production, which opened Saturday night, was proposed by the celebrated mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, who stars as Maria. In the pit, Dudamel has his Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. The chorus is the Salzburg Bach Choir. On sale in the lobby is a German musicological opera guide to “West Side Story,” one in a series that includes, “Don Giovanni,” “Tristan und Isolde” and “Fidelio.”
Saturday, moreover, was just as tony an occasion as any opera night at the Salzburg Festival, for which black tie or formal versions of traditional Austrian peasant dress are common. This was said to be the summer’s hottest opera ticket. Demand for the six performances, which run through Aug. 29, is so great that the dress rehearsal was opened to the public.
Even so, the audience expectations were not the same as they might have been for a high-profile opera production. No one, for instance, booed when director Philip Wm. McKinley took his curtain call. Had any director similarly mucked about with Mozart or Strauss, for better or worse, the Salzburg crowd would have hardly been shy about showing its disapproval. Booing unconventional productions is a hallowed tradition here.
Yet despite considerable musical excellence, this lavish “West Side Story,” which held so much promise, has proved an outright theatrical turkey, indiscriminately gobbling up opera and Broadway.
The concept is Bartoli’s and not necessarily bad. As the director of the Salzburg Festival’s four-day Whitsun programs, she wanted “West Side Story” as the centerpiece of her Romeo-and-Juliet-themed weekend in May, when the production was unveiled before coming to the main festival.
To make it reasonable for a 50-year-old mezzo to sing Maria — who is described in Arthur Laurents’ book for the show as “an extremely lovely, extremely young girl” just off the boat from Puerto Rico — Bartoli came up with the idea of two Marias. She would be Maria 20 years later, haunted by the warring gangs of Puerto Rican immigrants and so-called “native boys,” kids of immigrants a generation or two earlier. Meanwhile a young actress, Maria II, enacts the drama as a flashback. Maria I sings. Maria II speaks the dialogue.
There is more than enough reason to update racial conflicts in this part of the world, what with its large influx of Syrian immigrants. The slang in “West Side Story” may be dated, but not the xenophobia.
The production, however, offers little sense of where or when. The sets by the noted opera designer George Tsypin are scrims of New York tenements on the long stage of the Felsenreitschule and decorated with 1970s graffiti (which means this is clearly no longer the same part of the Upper West Side by then gentrified by Lincoln Center).
The fortysomething Maria (who appears considerably older) is now the supervisor of the bridal shop where she worked as a young emigrant. Or maybe she’s a ghost because she throws herself under an elevated train at the end, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Mainly Maria I is a grim figure in funereal black, with hair tied back, who hovers over everyone longingly, as though a long-suffering mother in an Italian verismo opera. Norman Reinhardt (Tony) also comes from the world of opera, but most of the Jets and Sharks are from Broadway or London’s West End. Choreographer Liam Steel and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward cross both worlds. McKinley is best known for having turned Julie Taymor’s originally inventive but troubled “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark” into bland Broadway.
With the exception of the looming Bartoli in her own world, the “West Side Story” staging remains mostly conventional. New York accents are over-exaggerated by British actors. The costumes are caricatures of ‘50s dress and cultural styles. The hairdos go overboard: Riff, the leader of the Jets, could pass for a sendup of the Fonz. The only modern touch is a touch of violence, including rape.
For the most part the Sharks and Jets pull off difficult assignments, singing well, dancing well, acting well. The dance refurbishes Jerome Robbins with contemporary moves (and annoying stop-motion bits to remind us this is all flashback).
But it is Bartoli who turns the production into something more bizarre. The show is amplified (unevenly) Broadway style, and amplification doesn’t flatter her rich mezzo, instead emphasizing her vibrato and making her seem all the more like an overwrought figure who stepped out of the wrong genre and is on stage mainly to bum everyone out.
Most bizarre of all, though, is that, through it all, she does at times remind us why she is a great star. There is power in her expression. Her agility turns “I Feel Pretty” into a probing Baroque aria. She sings “Somewhere” (usually given to a character simply known as the girl but here sensibly Maria’s reflection of the way things should be) with touching depth.
But so little works. It is just too weird to have Maria I singing to Tony on one part of the stage while Tony is with Maria II someplace else. Nor is Reinhardt’s operatic conventionality a match for Bartoli or for music theater aces. As for those aces, they include Dan Burton’s feisty Riff, George Akram’s slick Bernardo and Karen Olivo’s explosive Anita.
And then there is Dudamel and his Bolivars. They are the real stars of the show. But Dudamel can do only so much when constrained by an odd mix of singers, variable amplification of voices and stodgy choreography. He was more effective last month conducting a semi-staged “West Side Story” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a fresh Broadway cast at the Hollywood Bowl, where he had more opportunity to control pacing.
There appears to be no future for this “West Side Story.” It is not scheduled to travel, be broadcast, recorded or filmed. But it could be saved. A studio audio recording that avoided the hazards of amplification and staging, that allowed Bartoli to musically interact with the others, that allowed Dudamel to assert more musical control, might change everything. At least, it would do what the director of this show could not, or dared not, do — namely protect Bartoli from herself.
What, then, to infer from sophisticated European opera audience loving it, rhythmically clapping along as Dudamel engagingly danced with Bartoli during the curtain call? That’s best left to cultural theorists.