Watching “West Side Story” I had sky-high expectations because the last time I saw it performed was an extended Christmas run by a West End director. It was stunning and performed on one of the widest stages in Europe, lit by a world-renowned lighting designer who manipulated the mood through a series of gentle yellows, dangerous reds and emotive blues.
So inevitably when the latest show began, with separate dancers and separate singers for the leads, I found it unsettling, strange and confusing that Maria and Tony could be singing upstairs and dancing on the next level below. It added a certain dreamlike quality and there was some jarring use of a cinematic backdrop in the first act that for me just didn’t work, but this is a personal preference of separating cinema from theatre rather than blending the two.
For a young modern audience with no previous bias or experience of “West Side”, it could enrich the experience.
There was also the dual language at play that seems to be coming ever more popular in opera; the songs performed in English and the spoken dialogue in Hungarian with a sprinkling of Spanish.
If I left in the interval I would not have found the experience I was craving in this premiere, but always, towards the end of the final act, there is that moment where the incongruous parts merge into one magnificent whole.
It is as though the director had thrown a globe of mercury in the air scattering it into a zillion little pieces and gradually they had merged together leaving one dazzling silver ball of perfection.
It is daring and innovative and highly risky to do as director and choreographer Péter Novák did, by splitting the characters in two, creating one half a dancer and the other a singer. It could have failed and crashed spectacularly. But somehow, it worked.
Maybe the strength of the storyline, the high-octane musical numbers so familiar to the world and the enchanting musical score provided the skeleton for the weaker bones of the production. “West Side” has a long history of success. Its dark storyline and memorable music alongside extended dance sequences made it a musical that lasted for theatre-goers long after the final stagelight was extinguished. The songs “Maria”, “America”, “Somewhere” and “Tonight” are unforgettable.
The industrial set of this production with its metal and mirrors provided the backdrop for the action, as it should. The “West Side Story” set should be as minimalist and tough as the unrelenting concrete streets of New York.
One of the reasons “West Side Story” remains so popular is because it has such contemporary relevance; immigrant Puerto Ricans against local New Yorkers constantly fighting each other with a twisted love story thrown in.
With original music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins, it was inspired by the story of Shakespeare’s fated Romeo and Juliet and transformed to the Upper West Side of New York in the 1950s. The Sharks are the immigrant Puerto Ricans fighting with the rival gang of locals, the Jets. When one of the locals, Tony, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Sharks leader Bernardo, this is not going to be a white wedding but one drenched in dark vengeful blood.
After Tony kills Bernardo in a street fight, Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita is grieving and angry and pleads with Maria not to be with Tony, a man who killed her own brother. Maria is ripped in two by loyalty to her people and family, and her love for Tony.
With strong vocals from Erika Miklósa as Maria, Gergely Boncsér as Tony and Lúcia Megyesi Schwartz as Anita along with a fine cast of dancers, this version of “West Side” captured the tense dynamism of the original.
When Tony is shot in retaliation, Maria’s reprise of “Somewhere” is mesmerisingly sad. “You all killed him,” she shouts at the crowd. Only one person fired the fatal shot but her words are haunting; hate and conflict destroy everything and everyone is guilty for Tony’s death.
Maybe now there will be an uneasy peace but it all comes too late for the fated lovers. Love doesn’t care about the consequences; it shakes you like a bolt of electricity and traps you in its grip. Why do we always fall in love with the forbidden, knowing elation will descend into heartbreak?
The taste of sweetness turns to poison so fast. We can hunt it down, try to hang on to the beauty but it is already slipping through our fingers… and it is gone.
“West Side Story”
Hungarian State Opera
Until Saturday, October 10
II János Pál Pápa tér 30, District VIII
For opera tickets and information go to www.jegymester.hu/en