You either love this version or you hate it. I love it; a lot
of people hate it. It doesn’t take long to find newsgroup commentary
that excoriates the whole project. Most criticism centres on the
mature voices of Te Kanawa and Carreras. Bear this in mind because
I might just be alone in being so enthusiastic about the CD and
the documentary. Normally I would be siding with the critics.
After all the warring murderous gangs are teenagers. On the other
hand we have lived for years with the suspension of disbelief
required in the opera world. True, Bernstein said that this was
not to be played as opera – and yet he chose operatic voices and
this was a project that he micro-managed. Had he lost his grip.
I think not. He may have been a sentimentalist but he was a tough
sentimentalist. He knew what he wanted and he got it. And this
version has such zest, such pizzazz, such spark-arcing voltage
that the moment I start listening I am swept along by the action.
Some of the gang talk makes you wince with embarrassment (try
out your tolerance in Cool, Daddio!) but it's not as if
the singers put it across with anything less than conviction.
The music is a strange
unabashed amalgam of styles - drawing on Vaudeville, Satie,
Latin-American big band commercial, Copland-style Americana
(Scherzo tr. 20) and Bernstein, Bernstein, Bernstein.
What about the delights
of this version? Listen to how the music in tr. 8 moves from
an oh-so-delicate balletic pointillism to a kitschy music-hall
echo of the same material. Carreras manages his coffee-cacao
accent like a master yet looses off erotic climactic moments
one after another with technique and artistry to spare. Listen
to him in Maria. There's wit too - as in America where
the second support team of singers are put through their paces.
This is a glorious triumph of timing, fast pacing, yelping-yawping
brass and especially scouring and howling trumpets and leaping
percussion. The brass play with real gusto and the bird cries
of the singing ensemble at 4:23 mixed with ringing percussion
is but one gem among a torrent. Different but broadly humorous
is the Officer Krupke song with its mix of social comment,
knockabout Prokofiev and Vaudeville.
There are some miscalculations.
For me the One Hand One Heart suffers a fatal overdose
of gooey syrup. Tonight, on the other hand, plays
out the Bernstein magic running from gang-conflict to quick-paced
romantic ballad. Carreras with his thick accent registers like
the king of character tenors that he is. The (2.50) counter-pointing
of gang machismo lines and romantic duet works in all the grateful
complexity of its operatic weave. There's not a trace of miscalculation
in A Boy Like That with its virtuoso rapped-out anger
blend-faded into I Have a Love. The interplay between
Anita and Maria is extraordinarily effective and moving. I am
not a Te Kanawa fan but for me this is one of her high points
to contrast with awful incongruities like her Songs of the
Auvergne where Canteloube's delicate pastoral blooms suffer
operatic suffocation. Here however she excels as she did so
many many years ago when she sang the ersatz Salammbo aria on
the Gerhardt/Herrmann Classic Film Scores LP – when will that
series be reissued wholesale. Try also The Balcony Scene
in which Carreras’s singing of the words ‘always you ....’
at 2'20 rises effortlessly right up to those ringing pure notes.
Every orchestral detail is there in weighted equipoise. In the
recap listen also to the wondrous acceleration from the words
‘shooting sparks into space’.
The DVD of the documentary
is even more moving and well worth more than a single play-through.
This is a de luxe production
in the format of a CD-sized thick hardback book. The CD is in
a pocket inside the front cover; the DVD at the back.
The notes are in English,
French and German. The
full sung libretto is in English only.
This version has all
the rawness, rasp and romance you could ask for and an out-and-out
blast of an orchestral performance.