Musical or Opera? Either Way, Vancouver’s West Side Story is a Winner

CanadaCanada Bernstein: West Side Story: Vancouver Opera, soloists, Leslie Dala (conductor), Ken Cazan (director), Kinza Tyrrell (assistant conductor), Tracy Flye (choreographer), Cameron Anderson (set designer), Alice Marie Kugler Bristow (costume designer), David Martin Jacques (lighting designer), Andrew Tugwell (sound designer), Paul Gélineau (fight director), Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver, British Columbia. 22.10.2011 (BJ)

The question in my mind beforehand was: How well can an opera-company production of West Side Story stack up against the movie Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise made of this quintessential Broadway music-theater masterpiece?

The answer, I am happy to report, is: Very well indeed. In some respects, moreover, this co-production of Vancouver Opera and Colorado’s Central City Opera can even be said to outshine the mostly brilliant movie version.

I seem to remember that the Manhattan decor as seen in the film was rather improbably clean. Cameron Anderson’s sets, by contrast, which incorporate a motley assemblage of structures that can be moved around, reversed, and removed as the action demands, captured something much more like the messy environment the Jets and the Sharks inhabited. And under the authoritative direction of “Certified Fight Master” Paul Gélineau, the fights were even more exciting in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre than on the movie screen, simply by virtue of the fact that, in the theater, it wouldn’t have been possible to re-stage any moves that went wrong – and anyway, nothing did. As for the choreography, based on Jerome Robbins’s own, though I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that it outdid the stunning original, Tracy Flye achieved a very creditable re-creation, and the dancers kept up a level of disciplined synchronization such as I have rarely encountered even in the work of leading ballet companies.

Then there were Alice Marie Kugler Bristow’s costumes. Jets were sufficiently differentiated visually from Sharks – sufficiently, but not too much so. Consequently, it wasn’t easy at every moment to tell which group feuding on stage was which; and this seemed to me to underline in a manner both clever and subtle the utter pointlessness and stupidity of all such feuds, whether it might be the Campbells and McDonalds in Scotland doing the killing, or the Hatfields and McCoys in America, not to mention all the other conflicts currently tearing the world apart for non-reasons stemming from clan, family, race, or so-called religion. (One wonders what the Savior and the Prophet would have thought of the murderous nincompoops who pass themselves off as their followers.) David Martin Jacques’s lighting, too, contrived both to punctuate and to heighten the turns of the plot with skill and economy.

Vancouver Opera’s associate conductor and chorus master, Leslie Dala, drew superbly eloquent and focused playing from the orchestra, pacing the score intelligently, and the cast on stage was exemplary almost without exception. Of the two lovers around whom the Romeo-and-Juliet story revolves, one and two halves were indeed admirable. With the “two halves,” I intend a distinction between Lucia Cesaroni’s speaking in the role of Maria and her singing. Both were splendid, but in disconcertingly different ways.

I was reminded of the premiere production of Berio’s Opera at La Scala back in the 1980s when the pop singer and actress Milva’s unvarnished delivery in a leading role made the operatic voices of the rest of the cast sound almost comical by contrast. In this West Side Story, the proportions of operatic and what might be called vernacular voices were reversed. Ms. Cesaroni’s Maria projected irresistible charm and, at the end, strength of character, and her projection of the spoken dialogue was unfailingly clear and idiomatic. But as soon as she started singing, the finely produced rich soprano she unfurled was so startlingly operaticky that it sounded as if it was coming from a completely different person. Her Tony suffered from no such disconnect. Colin Ainsworth followed up compelling performances in Vancouver’s Lillian Alling last season, and as Tamino and Tom Rakewell for Pacific Opera Victoria, with a beautifully realized characterization of West Side Story’s hero, and his speaking was completely consistent in manner and tone with his commanding and mellifluous singing.

Likewise, the speaking and singing of all the other Jets, as of the Sharks and their girls, held consistently to the Broadway rather than the operatic line, with especially strong performances coming from Cleopatra Williams as Anita, from Vincent Tong as Chino, and from Scott Augustine and Dani Jazzar as Riff and Bernardo, the leaders respectively of the Jets and the Sharks. David Adams touched in a sympathetic portrayal of the drugstore owner, Doc (the work’s approximate substitution, plot-wise, for Shakespeare’s Friar Laurence), and Timothy E. Brummund and Sam Marcaccini were entirely believable as Schrank and Officer Krupke.

With all these virtues going for it, Vancouver’s West Side Story adds up to a moving and genuinely thrilling evening in the theater. My only minor reservation about the work itself is that the various acts of forgiveness required from the characters seem to be arrived at with somewhat unlikely speed, almost without difficulty – we might only wish that all those contemporary conflicts alluded to above were as easy of  resolution. But what a work it is! Think of it as a musical in opera’s clothing, or as an opera with a musical’s strengths – but either way, see it: the run continues until 29 October.

Bernard Jacobson