Bernstein: West Side Story
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Controversial as an essential Carreras recording, West Side Story isn't an opera, and neither is the tenor, operatic star José Carreras, an American-born Broadway singer. But the music is operatic in quality--let's say in durability. It is Bernstein's most established masterpiece, his surest claim to be remembered as a composer a century from now; the source is Shakespeare and the music has a seriousness, color, and intensity worthy of its subject. And this recording represents the way the composer wanted it to sound, with his choice of the best available voices. Carreras sounds like he was born to sing "Something's Coming," "Maria," and "Tonight." Perhaps he was born to sing them in Spanish, but opera lovers regularly take bigger language problems than that in stride for the sake of vocal quality. --Joe McLellan
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I think it's a real treat to hear the songs performed by classically trained singers and not - like Bernstein himself says on the dvd - performed by dancers who also can sing somewhat. In my opinion the songs benefit greatly from being sung by artists like José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa. What I don't like about this recording is Bernsteins decision about not letting the singers perform the spoken dialogue as well as the singing. And why, oh why did Bernstein have to choose his own children for the task? To me they sound uninvolved in the play and I guess it must be hard to get into the right lovestruck mood when acting against your sibling! But they're the only problem with this recording and a minor one that is.
The whole cast is doing an excellent job on this recording. José Carreras is an exceptionally good Tony. His "Maria" is out of this world. And the duet "one hand, one heart" with Kiri Te Kanawa is heart-wrenching. "Tonight" is also outstanding. Something that never ceases to amaze me about him is his ability to make his voice express exactly what he's singing about. In the song "something's coming" he's singing ...."around the corner or whistling down the river".... You get the feeling that something's really whistling down the river. Listen and you'll understand what I'm talking about.
Kiri Te Kanawa is better here than in many of her other recordings. Sometimes she sounds very, very posh when singing, but it's hard to beat her in the duets "a boy like that" and "I have a love", performed with Tatiya Troyanos.
The song "America" makes you wanna get up and dance. And so does "Gee, officer Krupke". The songs have an energy and a freshness about them that makes you unable to sit still. In addition they're quite funny and you just have to laugh.
However, in the end Tony gets shot, leaving you devastated when he dies. I always get this strange "void" inside after hearing the final song where Tony suddenly stops singing and you realize that he's actually dead.
Due to the fact that Leonard Bernstein is conducting the play himself one must assume that this is the recording he would choose, since he most probably made the whole cast perform just the way he intended them to when he wrote this music. And what's good enough for Leonard Bernstein certainly works for me!
The 'operatic' emphasis in this recording produces a stunning effect, particularly in the more Romantic parts of the musical, most brilliantly in 'Somewhere', which is sung by Marilyn Horne. Kiri Te Kanawa is a superlative Maria; Jose Carreras is a sensational Tony, singing the most gorgeous rendition of 'Maria' imaginable. The two combine in an incomparably moving 'Tonight', easily the most beautiful and touching that I have ever encountered.
I also deserves to be said that the Suite from "On the Waterfront" contains some of Bernstein's most powerful and emotional music, and in its slow section it sings with a bittersweet lyricism that is not easily forgotten.
Alexander seems a silly kid, who has a crush (and it isn't his true love) on a girl, and Nina, sometimes, is rough, almost brutal (for instance when she says "I cannot stay GO QUICKLY"), maybe in order to imitate a Spanish accent. Anyway, she is as expressive and as sensitive as an ice statue. Apart from that, the biggest problem is the fact that the two singers and the two actors have not a similar conception of the same character, and their interpretations are too much different, for Carreras and Te Kanawa don't seem two kids, (and they aren't). However, this remarkable difference you can feel between the sung and the spoken parts, is compensated by the exceptional general level of the recording (and by the fact that it is an only-audio-recording, so that you can listen to the music and concentrate on it, without taking care of the spoken dialogue).
So, you could hear different interpretations of this musical, because this is not the only valid one, but I think that it hardly could be exceeded.
I really do not care what critics said about José Carreras in the role of Tony (his accent, etc.). Never have I ever heard a more beautiful renditon of ¨Maria.¨ His lovely, magnificent voice gives such an intensity and sensitivity to this most magnificent piece. Additionally, his ¨One Hand, One Heart¨ duet with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is so absolutely beautiful it just destroys my heart.
I also own the video, ¨Leonard Bernstein Conducts West Side Story¨ and it is so interesting to see the making of this gem. Such an inspiration to the soul!! Leonard Bernstein will always be one of our country's most amazing treasures!! God Bless him forever!!!!
On to this recording. While WSS has never claimed to be an exercise in realism - NYC gangs don't break out into ballet or say things like "cut the frabba-jabba", and the events presented are unlikely to play out in under 36 hours in real life - it is a conscious commentary on cultural divisions and assimilation. Thus, while we can perhaps forgive the questionable casting choices made in 1961 as there were no Hispanic performers at the time with the box-office draw of a Natalie Wood (the actresses rejected for the role of Maria included Jill St. John, Audrey Hepburn, Diane Baker, Valerie Harper, Elizabeth Ashley, and Suzanne Pleshette - not a Latina among them!), and this *was* the same year that "Breakfast At Tiffany's" gave us the infamous Mr. Yumioshi, in 1985 there's really no excuse for handing the roles of Tony and Maria to a Spaniard and a New Zealander, respectively (neither does it help that Carreras and Te Kanawa are both ~ 40 years old).
This is beautiful music, wonderfully sung and well played, but the inappropriateness of the voices *will* bother you. As stand-alone performances there are highlights here: "Maria" and "One Hand One Heart" among them, but you're always aware that you are listening to a Professional Singer (TM) with a lyric sheet in front of him/her rather getting lost in the wonder of a performer who is totally in character. Some here argue that "well, Lenny picked these singers so they must be the ones he liked for the parts" but it is well known that Bernstein and Carreras had numerous quarrels during recording.
Ironically the liner notes include this statement from Bernstein's diary entry when the play opened: "I guess we were right not to cast "singers": anything that sounded more professional would inevitably sound more experienced, and then the "kid' quality would be gone. A perfect example of a disadvantage turned into a virtue."
As expected the hand-picked orchestra crackles under Lenny's baton, with the original Broadway score allowed to demonstrate its vast superiority to the film score's bloat. For those more familiar with the film, note that on this version:
- "America" has very different lyrics and the leads are Anita and Rosalia rather than Anita and Bernardo
- "Cool" is in the first act, performed by Riff; "Krupke" is in the second act, sung primarily by Action
- "I Feel Pretty" opens the second act
- "Somewhere" is sung by "A Girl" as opposed to Tony and Maria (in the present touring company it is sung by Anybody's)
- original lyrics that were changed for the film are restored in "Jet Song", "Krupke" and one or two other places
The sound is crisp and dry, perfect for a scholarly examination if not a faithful representation of a theater pit's ambiance. As others have mentioned the dialog intros performed by Bernstein's son and daughter are contrived and distracting.
This set is a must-buy for those wishing to marvel at the genius of Bernstein, which should include every fan of West Side Story. Just don't expect to hear the sounds of an American teenager and his young Puerto Rican girlfriend to come out of your speakers.