Before the opening of this year’s Whitsun Festival in Salzburg, the formidable Festspielpräsidentin Helga Rabl-Stadler admitted having some reservations about staging West Side Story when it was first proposed by her Artistic Director, Cecilia Bartoli. Leonard Bernstein’s celebrated magnum opus made sense in the context of this year’s theme of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, but had Madame Rabl-Stadler foreseen that the production would be fatally flawed, the principal singers miscast and the introduction of ‘sound engineering’ (a shameful euphemism for ‘miking’) an affront to traditional performing standards, one can imagine that her reservations may have been stronger.

American musical and circus director Philip Wm. McKinley wrote that his directional concept was based on a website which asked “What happened to Maria after Tony died?” One might as well ask “What happened to Rodolfo after Mimì spluttered her last terribile tosse?” The question is hypothetical and musically irrelevant. 

Perhaps inspired by Kasper Holten’s Covent Garden Eugene Onegin where dancing doubles represented the protagonists in their youth, McKinley had two Marias, dubbed ‘Maria 1’ (obviously top billing for the diva) recalling the tragic events 20 years before and ‘Maria 2’ (Michelle Veintimilla) as her youthful incarnation. Bartoli spent most of the evening moping around the stage looking like a maudlin Mamma Lucia.

Directional aberrations abounded. McKinley has Anita sexually assaulted by the Jets at Doc’s drugstore. The text says ‘taunted’, not violated. Even worse, in an unsubtle Anna Karenina parallel, McKinley has Maria1 jump in front of a subway train at the opera’s conclusion then blissfully join Tony on some celestial scaffolding. Despite Shakespeare, neither Bernstein nor Sondheim considered Maria’s suicide a desirable dénouement.

The constantly shifting set design by George Tsypin was Broadway slick but too colourful in a Chagall/Warhol fashion. It failed to convey the drab claustrophobic squalor of New York slum tenements in the 1950s. Extensive use was made of the enormous height of the Felsenreitschule and endless metal stairs over three steep levels predominated – fortunately none of the principals appeared to suffer from vertigo.

Unsurprisingly Bartoli does all the singing (but speaks no dialogue) except for a mystifying break from musical muteness by Maria2 in the first few bars of the Finale which then becomes a short un-scored trio. This conceit meant that the duets such as the Balcony scene and “One Hand, One Heart” lost all dramatic credibility as the singers were so far apart – in some cases on different floors. It did however allow Bartoli to sing “Somewhere” which was slightly unmoving.

Bartoli’s opening vocal timbre sounded more like Marilyn Horne and the vibrato was alarmingly wide. There was improvement in “One Hand, One Heart” with a pleasing piano scale to top A flat on the concluding “death won’t part us now”. The tessitura of “I have a Love” seemed more comfortable and there was some sensitive legato phrasing in “When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong”.

Norman Reinhardt's bland stage presence as Tony is mono-dimensional and the voice, even when miked, small and undistinguished. The sustained top B flat option on the climatic “Maria” was relatively clean but his overall performance was nothing more than routine.

Karen Olivo's Anita was more satisfactory and “America” was sung with admirable oomph and fun. Of the smaller roles, Dan Burton’s Riff was the most convincing, with accomplished singing as well as impressive dancing. Both Jets and Sharks displayed boundless energy and considerable dance prowess, although the usual show-stopper “Gee, Officer Krupke” didn’t quite succeed. This is surely attributable to the fact that Stephen Sondheim’s clever lyrics were consistently poorly articulated. All singers were deficient in diction and most of the dialogue was incomprehensible – even to native English speakers in the audience. The introduction of ‘sound design’ proved not only intrusive but counterproductive.  

Kenneth Tynan once described the music of West Side Story as “smooth and savage as a cobra; it sounds as if Puccini and Stravinsky had gone on a roller-coaster ride into the precincts of modern jazz.” The cobra charmer in this case was Gustavo Dudamel who lead the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra with verve and sensitivity. Dudamel has a seemingly inherent affinity for this extremely complex score which Bernstein himself described as “terribly difficult stuff”. Certainly the rhythmic aptitude of the young Venezuelan players was not unexpected, but in the more lyrical passages such as “I Have a Love” and Act II ballet sequence, their delicate phrasing, lilting articulation and meticulous dynamic detail was equally impressive.

Traditional Bartoli repertoire fans will be relieved to know that next year’s Salzburg Whitsun Festival will present Ariodante and La donna del lago.