John Wilson’s musical-theatre Proms are always much anticipated (and, in recent years, have been given matinee and evening billings); Saturday’s first Proms performance of the complete concert version of Bernstein’s West Side Story was no exception, packing both houses.
As always, with amplified singing, the Albert Hall’s chancy acoustic swallowed the lyrics for anything over a quiet solo, so the early bars of ‘Maria’, some of ‘Tonight’, the duet ‘One hand, one heart’ and all of Louise Alder’s sensitively rendered ‘Somewhere’ made it through unscathed, but for the rest, the live audience was left with some top-class vocal sound, but with a considerable loss of comprehensible text (such that, sadly, the wit of Sondheim’s busily clever libretto in the ‘Tonight’ ensemble, ‘America’ and ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ will only be appreciated by listeners to the broadcast).
Notwithstanding, there were some excellent performances. Ross Lekites’ tenor has the nervy switchblade edge that the part of Tony needs (although, on occasion, his top register thinned a little), and Leo Roberts and Gian Marco Schiaretti (as Riff and Bernardo respectively) brought weighty, bullying baritone qualities to their roles. Eden Espinosa gave a creditable performance as Anita, although she might perhaps have turned up the character-voice a notch to compensate for the acoustic. The shining solo, though, was undoubtedly Mikaela Bennett; she has an untypically generous voice for the teenage Maria (it has a deal of richness in the lower registers), but it is none the worse for that, as it brought power and audibility to the role. The prinicpals were kept to a minimum such that only Shark girls (needed for ‘America’) and Jet boys (for ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’) had named roles, with the bulk of the ensemble work sung (mostly unamplified – and better for it) by students from ArtsEd and Mountview, who provided some slick finger clicks and a solid, co-ordinated sound for the big numbers.
But enough of the singers, whom it must be said ended up, in the live performance, as icing on the cake of the real star of the show, the John Wilson Orchestra. The decision not to stage the musical (unlike last year’s Oklahoma!) allowed for a lavish stageful of players, and, as always, under Wilson’s brilliant direction, they turned in a corker of a performance. It is always a pleasure to hear Wilson’s complete immersion in the idiom turned into live sound, and there was no disappointment here. The Latin rhythms were crisp and accentuated (the gym-dance sequence’s squirty trumpets and solid trombones segued into a ‘Mambo!’ that had feet tapping; the syncopated drive of ‘Tonight’ was set to max); there was sway and brashness from the brass (louche, cheeky slide-trombones in ‘America’, and some breathtakingly rowdy work in the ‘Tonight’ ensemble); the strings in ‘One hand, one heart’ were as soupy as the Hudson at low tide; raucous stick-on-rusty-chevy cowbells accentuated the comedy of ‘America’, and ‘Cool’ was made all the more menacing by its terse cymbal-led muted-trumpet-and-vibraphone underlay. There was subtlety too: the pulling right back of the big timpani roll and horn in ‘Somewhere’ was very special, as was the delicate sounding, in the woodwind, of Bernstein’s shameless near-quote of Wagner’s Liebeserlösung motif at Tony’s death (a scene also beautifully handled by Mikaela Bennet, whose final choked ‘te adoro, Anton’ was deeply moving).
Stephen Whitson’s staging was minimal but effective, allowing for some positioning of characters, but not detracting from the performance’s concert focus. The lighting was also successful in summoning mood, providing an excellent substitute for changes of scenery that a more staged version would have achieved.