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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Opera Review: Just Right for a Street Fight

Carnegie Hall's Somewhere Project mounts West Side Story.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Jets (with Manny Stark, center, as Riff) land at the Knockdown Center in West Side Story.
Photo © 2016 by Richard Termine, courtesy Carnegie Hall Public Relations Department.
The music of Leonard Bernstein is the heartbeat of New York City. That was the thesis behind the Weill Music Institute's Somewhere Project, a prodigious initiative to celebrate art, song and music education as well as commemorate the current and 125th season of Carnegie Hall. The project reached a climax of sorts this weekend with the mounting of two performances of West Side Story at the Knockdown Center, a former glass factory on the leading edge of Maspeth, Queens.

In this city's violent past, the Knockdown (it's on Flushing Avenue, in a vast parking lot in the industrial groin-land between Maspeth, Ridgewood and Bushwick) might have been chosen for a rumble between the Jets and Sharks, the two street gangs that substitute for Shakespeare's warring families in this 1957 update of Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, the entire show was mounted on a long runway space in the middle of the audience: a fashion runway turned battle-ground.

The score was played with exuberance by a 40-piece ensemble (larger than a normal Broadway band for this show) under the direction of Marin Alsop, the acclaimed American conductor. Ms. Alsop caught the raw rage and vitality in Bernstein's use of stark intervals and slashing, dissonant chords. This gives way to the doomed Tristan-esque love music of Tony and Maria, and the Latin jazz beats that accompany the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. And yes, the orchestra and singers were amplified, an unfortunate necessity in the awkward industrial acoustic provided by the building. The chorus, which appeared both on the runway stage and on bleachers at one end behind the orchestra, was not.

Adding to the sense of excitement was the choreography, carefully adjusted for the wide-open staging. The former was mostly that of Jerome Robbins, recreated by Julio Monge with a few new embellishments by Sean Cheeseman. Director Amanda Dehnert opened the show with the cast milling about before putting on red (the Jets) or purple (the Sharks) sneakers (themselves hung on cords, an image reminiscent of the barrio streets of New York and literally choosing sides for the conflict to come. The opening gang skirmishes had energy and kinesis, with high-flying singers and dancers acting out the senseless violence of the streets and Ms. Alsop ratcheting up the tension with every bar.

Vocally, the major discovery here was soprano Morgan Hernandez, entirely natural and unaffected in the central role of Maria. Despite being on mic, she demonstrated a powerful instrument with a strong chest and just a hint of vibrato when she pushed for the big notes. She was well-matched with Skylar Astin as Tony, her would-be Romeo turned peacemaker who ends up with blood on his hands and eventually, shot dead in the streets. The TV and film star was armed with a pleasing tenor and a boyish optimism that suited the character's loss of innocence.

As Riff and Bernardo, the leaders of the Jets and Sharks, Manny Stark and Donald Jones Jr. oozed charisma. Mr. Jones, particularly made one wish that Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim had written a proper aria for Bernardo to sing so one could hear more of his bass voice. The two gang leaders executed a memorable final combat in the rumble scene, before re-staging it for the Act II "Somewhere" ballet. They entered and exited, hands bound together by cord, attached forever in the afterlife.

Other standouts included the young singing actors playing the Jets ("Gee, Officer Krupke" was a comic highlight) Chuck Cooper in the twin roles of Krupke and Doc, and Peter Gerety as the racist cop Schrank. Indeed, Schrank's hate speech and free use of epithets reminded one uncomfortably of current political rhetoric from a certain Manhattan-based urban developer. In a world filled with troubles and petty hatreds, the potent and peaceful message of West Side Story must continue to be acknowledged.

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