Saturday, November 10, 2007

"Leonard Bernstein Conducts 'West Side Story'"

This is an album I really, really want to like. I always have high expectations when composers conduct their own work. Copland conducts anything by Copland is always a winner. I enjoy understanding how the composer feels about a piece, especially if I have favorite recordings by other conductors, or have perhaps performed the piece myself. I always wonder how something like "A German Requiem" would have sounded on a recording by Brahms himself. So when Leonard Bernstein finally decided to conduct more than just an excerpt or two from his monumental "West Side Story" score, I was thrilled.

With all due respect to the gracious lady who posted a review in Amazon, I have serious problems with this recording.

Not orchestrally, of course. Bernstein's interpretation of his own score is nothing short of brilliant, and he brings the full weight of the score to bear in this recording. I bought the cassette version when it came out twenty years ago, and the only technical flaw it had was some uneven mixing that meant a goodly portion of the "Rumble" section sounded like it was being fought behind closed doors. Otherwise, Bernstein does his usual sterling job of putting his studio musicians through their paces.

The serious problems I have with the recording are the voices Bernstein employed to portray the principles. Understanding the long-standing relationships Bernstein had formed over the years with many vocal luminaries, it wasn't terribly surprising that he would pick A-listers like José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa to portray Tony and Maria. Riff is voiced by Kurt Ollman, an able baritone with a rich voice but completely wooden acting skills in the incidental dialogues. The only vocal bright spots on this recording are the other Jets, and Anita. Anita is voiced by Metropolitan Opera mezzo Tatiana Troyanos. Troyanos tragically died of liver cancer several years after this recording, but she gives Anita the full passion and fire that the role requires.

Please understand that this says nothing against the performers themselves. This is a critique of the decision to use these particular voices in a recording that deals with street-tough kids in 50's New York. Try as he might, Ollman just can't do the tough routine well enough to bring Riff to life. Te Kanawa, with her full-throated mezzo, can't keep it light enough to give the mind the impression of a young 16 or 17 year old Puerto Rican girl who finds her first real love. Carreras, a wonderful lyric tenor, is out of his element as tough-kid-with-good-heart Tony. He does a pretty admirable job of applying American diction to the role, but the jazzier syncopations of "Who Knows?," for example, elude him. There's no denying the power of his upper register in the duets with Te Kanawa, but the effect is one of an operatic reading of what is essentially a gritty stage musical.

(There is a video of the making of this recording. It aired, I think, on PBS. Probably during pledge drives. In it, you can see the trouble that Carreras had with the timing of the music. I had similar experiences trying to teach a young Tony we were working with in a church production that I had the privilege of conducting. Bernstein's music is tough on the inexperienced. One thing stands out in my memory, though. Bernstein himself had the principles over to his apartment to discuss the project, and he made a statement to the effect that after more than thirty years, the music was "still fresh." Granted, this was the composer saying this, but he himself hadn't really looked at the music since the show ran on stage. He was right, too. Musically, "West Side Story" is still just as fresh and powerful as it was back in the day.)

There are likeable things about this effort. "Officer Krupke" is solid, primarily because he used theatrical voices for the Jets. Troyanos worked as Anita because she was able to use her skills successfully and abandon the somewhat stiffer rules of operatic singing to give Anita her passion. "America" has Troyanos at her best, with a good backup crew of young theatrical voices assisting. In spite of my misgivings about their casting, Carreras and Te Kanawa do a beautiful job in the pivotal "One Heart, One Hand" duet. It's not good theater, but it's beautiful to hear.

All of this carping is probably because I'm a theater guy. I know (and respect) the differences between opera and musicals. I did a turn as Papageno in a junior college production of "The Magic Flute," and I probably did no real justice to that baritone role; I'm a second tenor, not a baritone ("Dammit, Jim!"), and probably wouldn't have captured the role at all if not for my comic instincts. I can say with a total lack of modesty that I shine in musical comedies. That's where I belong. I would never lend my voice to a recording of, say, Die Fledermaus, because I don't have the chops for it.

It's the same when performing in a foreign language. Listening to Carreras' American diction is probably what Europeans experience when Americans talk or sing in French or Italian. We can do a credible job, but it probably sounds just a little funny to them. That's more forgiveable in opera, where technique and timbre are king. If you have a solid high "C," then you're the bomb. Pretenders are roundly booed out of the theater.

I guess this was really a case of reality not meeting expectation. With all the talented Broadway voices in New York, I can't imagine that Lenny couldn't have found just the right mix of characterizations for this historical recording. Perhaps that was the point, after all. Perhaps he really just wanted to have a recording of his own music with voices that he knew and loved. If that's the case, then he certainly accomplished that.

I want to enjoy this recording, but it's not good theater.

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