West Side Story
ATLANTA OPERA launched its 2018-19 main stage season at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre with Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (seen Nov. 3). The Francesca Zambello staging, a co-production of Houston Grand Opera, The Glimmerglass Festival and Lyric Opera of Chicago, honors Bernstein’s life and work during the year of his centenary and was the highest-selling production in the Atlanta Opera’s thirty-nine-year history.
Atlanta’s production maintained the integrity of the 1957 classic with the seamless stage direction of Zambello and the spellbinding choreography of Julio Monge, a cast member of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, the 1989 show, directed by Robbins, that gathered numbers from a wide range of shows he had staged and choreographed. The pared down Atlanta Opera Orchestra, led by conductor David Neely, kept tempos brisk and punctuated dramatic moments. When all was said and done, Atlanta’s West Side Story emerged timeless and tragic, yet also didactic.
A capable troupe of dancers, led by Brian Vu’s Riff and DJ Petrosino’s Bernardo, went through their paces on scenic designer Peter Davison’s bleak set, a dingy brick-lined street, illuminated by a neon hotel sign and embellished with fire escapes and graffiti. The ensemble was first-rate: many of the actors were veterans of previous West Side Story incarnations on tour and in Kansas City, Houston or Glimmerglass. Costume designer Jessica Jahn’s New-Kids-On-Block vision updated the action by at least thirty years, giving younger audiences a point of reference. “Gee, Officer Krupke” was a highlight of the evening, underscoring just how integral the ensemble is to Bernstein’s story.
West Side Story featured a hybrid cast of both opera singers and musical theatre performers. Amanda Castro, a fabulous dancer, gave a confident performance as Anita, belting throughout, and infusing the ensemble number “America” with unparalleled vitality. Operatic baritone Brian Vu —a bona fide triple threat and former resident artist at both Glimmerglass and Pittsburgh Opera—was most impressive as the Jet’s ringleader Riff.
Vanessa Becerra and Andrew Bidlack were the ill-fated lovers, Maria and Tony. Becerra, previously heard here as Johanna in Sweeney Todd last season, sang with a buoyant soprano, pure and youthful. Sound engineer Andrew Harper was able to amplify her light soprano within the ensemble number, “Tonight” without distorting the character of her voice and created a laudable balance among the other singers on stage. Bidlack initially sounded green in “Something’s Coming”, but did a one-eighty by “Maria” singing the rest of the show with a Nemorinoesque timbre that was achingly beautiful in its upper reaches. —Stephanie Adrian