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Nearly 60 years after its premiere, West Side Story continues to provoke debate about whether it can be classed as an opera – and what that really means anyway. It’s a discussion complicated by the fact that the three recordings made during Bernstein’s own lifetime are radically different: the original 1957 Broadway version, with singing actors and an ensemble of around 30 instrumentalists; the 1961 film soundtrack, also with singing actors but a much bigger, more lush-sounding orchestra; and Bernstein’s own 1984 recording with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and a cast of operatic voices led by Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras.

This new recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony takes yet another approach, combining singing actors and orchestra in the first ever live concert performance of Bernstein’s complete score. (Only Thomas, thanks to his privileged position as the composer’s protégé and champion, was able to surmount the licensing restrictions that have prevented this from happening till now.) The production values are high, including a lavish CD booklet with photos from the live concert, an interview with Tilson Thomas, lyrics for all the songs and a short illustrated history of West Side Story. Musically, however, the results are rather disappointing.

Lyrical numbers such as ‘Maria’, ‘Tonight’ and ‘Only You’ are given fair renderings by Cheyenne Jackson (Tony) and Alexandra Silber (Maria), with the orchestra under Tilson Thomas rising and falling elegantly in Bernstein’s rhapsodic accompaniments. So far so good, but a more sophisticated approach is needed to bring out the darker hues of Sondheim’s sardonic humour in ‘America’ and ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’. The playful yet bitter tone of these ensemble numbers, captured so brilliantly in the 1961 film, is completely missing here – Tilson Thomas and his performers are simply too polite. Even more disappointing are the orchestral numbers such as ‘Mambo’ and ‘Rumble’, which should sizzle and broil with barely suppressed sexual energy and aggression. Under Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony plays them with a precision that’s careful to the point of vapid. The recording balance doesn’t help: the brass, in particular, are buried too deeply within the orchestral texture, which takes the edge off Bernstein’s jazzy tuttis. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus, meanwhile, do their best to notch up the temperature in their big numbers.

The soloists all sing with mikes, allowing them to use a simple, direct style of declamation that becomes more obviously ‘operatic’ as required by the music. Unfortunately, the lack of characterisation present in the orchestra spills over to the vocal performances, which are technically efficient but rarely moving.

A programme note from the composer’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein, includes the caveat that ‘West Side Story does not lend itself to a non-staged concert’. She goes on to praise Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for finding ‘a satisfying way to present the concert’, but that feeling of satisfaction hasn’t transferred successfully to disc.

Franz Wulf Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Opera Now, 2014 - ©Rhinegold Publishing