John Eliot Gardiner has waited six decades to conduct West Side Story. His deep and abiding affinity with Leonard Bernstein’s score can be traced back to his student days in Paris in the sixties. Meeting Bernstein at a soiree held by his teacher, Nadia Boulanger, was a landmark occasion for Gardiner, as he was able to quiz his idol about his work – in particular, West Side Story. Gardiner’s keen appreciation for the complexities of the score impressed Bernstein and led to a bond between the two men.
With this concert-hall version of West Side Story, performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and a diverse young cast of singers, Gardiner’s team – including chorus director Christopher Bell and director Stephen Whitson – are committed to ensuring the primary focus is, at all times, the music. Dialogue is minimal, and movement by the cast is restricted by limited performance spaces around the orchestra. If Gardiner’s aim is to give the audience a jolting reminder of what an utterly breathtaking masterpiece Bernstein’s score truly is, he is roundly successful. From the overture, the vibrant range of styles and genres are not only exhilarating to listen to, but watching the instrumentalists becomes a surprisingly visual affair, thanks to the abrupt jumps between sections and dramatic changes of pace. The dominance of the music and the reduction of other aspects of staging and performance generally serves Gardiner well in achieving his purpose. Allowing the music to tell the story with minimal distractions highlights elements of Bernstein’s genius, such the repeated use of tritones, which convey the theme of the conflict and discordance of street gang warfare and star-crossed lovers, as well as providing a sense of cohesion to the score.
The sumptuous beauty of the music is matched by some outstanding vocal performances by the cast. Alek Shrader as Tony is a commanding romantic lead, presenting both operatic precision and an easy, boyish charm reminiscent of Golden-era Hollywood. His talent is equalled by Sophia Burgos as Maria, whose vocals from the opening of Tonight onwards have a crystalline quality that is literally goosebump-inducing. This calibre is reflected throughout the supporting cast, with especially compelling performances by Andrea Baker as Anita and Ryan Kopel as Action.
There are a few points where the absence of Jerome Robbins’ legendary choreography (itself a work of genius) can be felt in the lack of movement. Numbers like America veer towards feeling uncomfortably static at points, but Baker and Carmen Ruby Floyd as Rosalia have the requisite charisma and skirt-swishing sass to keep the momentum going. A more physical group performance of Gee, Officer Krupke is tremendously effective and comedic, turning out to be an unexpected highlight of the evening.
Gardiner’s deep appreciation for West Side Story is reflected in this affectionate but rigorous performance. His ability to identify the precise classical influences behind it – such as Britten and Monteverdi, that so impressed Bernstein himself when they met – explains the decision to present in this way at the Usher Hall. And it works. Just as many of the songs deal with the notion of true love being a catalyst for seeing the old and the commonplace in a startling and exciting new light, Gardiner’s work here prompts audiences to undergo a similar experience in relation to a very familiar score. Prepare to fall in love with West Side Story all over again.