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”. In Germany, where West Side Story is treated much more seriously than a mere Broadway divertissement, the usual performing predilection is closer to a bouncy Bohème than a primordial Sacre du printemps. 

The new production for Staatsoper Hannover, directed by Matthias Davids and conducted by Joseph R. Olefirowicz, maintains the more Teutonic operatic tendency, despite Olefirowicz’s track record as a conductor of musicals at the Wiener Volksoper and Arthur Laurents’ admonition that West Side Story “must not be an opera”.

The set designs by Mathias Fischer-Dieskau (yes, son of the legendary German baritone) were impressive with two large constantly shifting modules delineating the action yet leaving plenty of room for the choreography. The “Rumble” staging under the highway was particularly effective although Doc’s drugstore was more of an al fresco operation without tables or chairs. For some bizarre reason, there is a prominent newspaper stand containing The New York Times, Süddeutscher Zeitung and Hamburger Abendblatt - but no San Juan Star.

There was very little to fault in Davids’ pacey direction, although the choice of Maria singing “Somewhere” instead of Consuelo or Francisca during the Act 2 ballet (it is actually written for an unspecified “girl”) was questionable. The libretto says that Anita is “taunted” by the rival gang, but like Philip Wm. McKinley’s Salzburg production, Davids has the Jets actually raping the ill-omened message bearer. The dénouement of Maria nursing Tony’s lifeless and very bloody body was visually striking but missed the vital point of reconciliation between Jets and Sharks which in the original stage direction, the rival gangs carry Tony’s corpse off stage together.

Following the usual custom in Germany and Austria, Sondheim’s flint-edged, poetic lyrics were spoken in German with the songs performed in the original English. This was slightly jarring, especially in “Officer Krupke” where text and melodic lines flip faster than a flick knife.

West Side Story is a work which relies as much on dazzling dance expertise as vocal prowess. The Ballett der Staatsoper Hannover acquitted itself well and Simon Eichenberger’s inspired choreography was executed with vibrancy, athleticism and infectious youthful exuberance. Even the curtain calls were cleverly choreographed. The Sharks were especially convincing although a surfeit of blond Jets looked slightly more Westphalia than Washington Heights.

Bernardo (Taddeo Pellegrini) could have been a Calvin Klein underwear model and one can understand Anita’s eagerness to get her “kicks” in the “Tonight Quintet”. Claudio Gottschalk-Schmitt was an impressive un-stereotypical Baby John, Davide Sioni an involved Louis and Niels Funke a gymnastic Snowboy who was able to sing several measures in “Officer Krupe” during a sustained handstand. Only Dennis Henschel’s Riff was less than optimal and “Cool” lacked a natural feel for jazz syncopation.

In keeping to current musical theatre practice, all singers were miked, which made vocal adjudication difficult, especially in regard to projection. In the principal roles, Carmen Danen’s Anita was the most impressive, although “A Boy like that” had more Sprechstimme than chest notes. Michael Pflumm was an affable Tony but vocally bland. The long sustained A natural in “Maria” was somewhat laboured although the difficult rhythms in “Something’s Coming” were well controlled.

Ukrainian soprano Stella Motina was more like Manon than Maria. Admittedly when Bernstein recorded West Side Story in 1985 he chose Kiri te Kanawa but the original stage Maria was Carol Lawrence who was much more a singing actress than stentorian soprano.  Motina generally tended to over-sing and “I Feel Pretty” was far too raucous. Bernstein preferred a slower lilting tempo than the thumpy triple time evinced by Olefirowicz. By contrast, “One Hand, One Heart” displayed a much more appropriate minimal vibrato with a dulcet piano A flat scale on “Death won’t part us now”.

Olefirowicz’s tempi tended to be far too brisk, as if jazz rhythms meant inherently fast. The Paso Doble pace of the Promenade was only proximate. Even the Cha Cha, which is marked Andantino con grazia and should have a chamber music timbre, lacked nuance and elegance. There was an absence of biting attack in the strings and glissando grabbing trombones were never close to raspy. The Niedersächsisches Staatsorchester seemed reluctant to relax and simply enjoy Bernstein’s deceptively difficult score and the overall instrumental sound was much close to Puccini than Puerto Rico.

That said, this was a commendable ensemble performance and rapturously received by the eclectic audience, which comprised large numbers of enthusiastic adolescents. Clearly Staatsoper Hannover is on the right track in securing its opera aficionados of the future and what better start than Bernstein’s “musical cobra”.