Picks and Pans Review: Leonard Bernstein Conducts West Side Story

updated 06/10/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/10/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

No one would argue against the proposition that West Side Story is one of the great Broadway musicals. But is it opera? And, speaking for the popular side of the tracks, can operatic voices render Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's glorious songs without rending them? Whatever you call it, West Side Story (like Porgy and Bess and a few others) is substantial enough for any opera house. Which is one point made by this recording of the score, the first ever conducted by the composer. The pickup orchestra plays with great vivacity and range for Bernstein. More than ever you marvel at the power and sophistication of such instrumental compositions as The Rumble and Procession and Nightmare. The verdict on the operatic voices is not so clear. The supporting players—the Jets, the Sharks and Maria's girlfriends—get the vernacular just right. You couldn't ask for a funnier Gee, Officer Krupke, a cattier America or a more swaggering Jet Song. Kurt Ollmann as Riff and Tatiana Troyanos as Anita project their characters convincingly. The problem is at the core with José Carreras as Tony and Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria. Neither was a first choice for the role. (Marilyn Home, an earlier Maria, is still on the record for one song, a very sweet and sincere Somewhere) Carreras and Te Kanawa both have thrilling voices and they produce thrilling moments. These usually occur in the higher pitched phrases, such as the climaxes of the their Tonight duet or in Something's Coming, when Carreras sings, "Around the corner/ Or whistling down the river...." But though she tries hard, Te Kanawa comes across as too regal for a Puerto Rican tenement girl. In I Feel Pretty, when she sings, "I feel fizzy and funny and fine/ And so pretty/ Miss America can just resign," there's no irony or sauciness in her voice. She sounds like a queen to whom Miss America is no more than a chambermaid. Objecting to Carreras trying but failing to overcome his Spanish accent would seem unsporting in most circumstances. But in Bernstein's updating of Romeo and Juliet, Tony's identity as an all-American boy happens to be crucial to the plot. As the hoodlum Action yelps in Gee, Officer Krupke, "Goodness gracious, that's why I'm a mess!" (Deutsche Grammophon)

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