Cecilia Bartoli in West Side Story — Why Not?

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 1.32.47 PMIt was announced last week in the NY Times and other sources that in Summer 2016, Cecilia Bartoli will play Maria in West Side Story at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. So far, there isn’t much more to the story than that – but it was enough to set off a lot of commentary (mostly, though not entirely, skeptical and/or snarky) in the opera Twitterverse.

Personally, I’m looking forward to it.

Bartoli, one of classical music’s biggest stars, is also one of its most controversial. Among the frequent criticisms – she’s mannered, she makes weird faces when she sings, and her vocal technique is quirky. Recent internet posts reiterated these points, as well as others more specific to West Side Story – she’s too old for the role… and what’s an Italian opera singer doing in a Bernstein musical?

Let’s unpack it. Bartoli does indeed make weird faces when she sings (likely, it’s related to her vocal method). She’s not flattered by high definition photography, but few opera singers are. (HD is better suited to the youthful, blandly pretty, mostly inert faces that populate CW Network television shows.) But when I’ve seen her live in the theater, it has never bothered me. More important, she’s a compelling, emotionally engaging actress.

It’s also fair to say that Bartoli has an idiosyncratic vocal style, including a particularly aggressive way with coloratura, the notes often separately articulated, popping like machine gun fire. The first time you hear it, it can be thrilling – but it doesn’t always wear well. On the other end of the spectrum, her legato line can verge on crooning. These and other aspects of her singing are mannerisms, though I don’t expect either will be a problem in West Side Story – there’s no coloratura to speak of, and the crooning could be very effective. (Check out Mozart’s “Laudate dominum” – wouldn’t you love to hear this ravishing sound in “One Hand, One Heart”?)

Audio: Cecilia Bartoli in Mozart’s “Laudate dominum”

Bartoli is a youthful-looking (on stage, at least) 48, which is older than Maria, certainly. In a fully staged production, her age might be an issue – but my guess is this will be more of a semi-staged performance, which incorporates some of the story, Encores-style. (When it was announced recently that the Harold and Maude-ishly paired Jake Gyllenhaal and Ellen Greene would be appearing this summer in Encores’ Little Shop of Horrors, I didn’t see a comparable level of eyebrow raising.)

Cecilia Bartoli -- Looking almost like Maria...

Cecilia Bartoli — Looking almost like Maria…

What’s left to discuss? Bartoli is Italian – and fluent in English, which she speaks and sings with an accent that can probably be tweaked to sound more Puerto Rican.

As for being an opera singer – first, that’s a too-broad category, not nuanced enough to suggest what Bartoli does. But also – so what? In fact, as she points out, West Side Story includes vocal writing – specifically for Maria and Tony – that is quite operatic in range and style. (She is also insightful enough to note that it’s one aspect of Bernstein’s musical vision, but not the only one.)

In fact, West Side Story follows a once-common template in musical theater to portray the central romantic couple in a way that gives them a vocally traditional profile, alongside supporting characters with a lighter, less operatic style. Think of Oklahoma! (Laurey and Curly, vs. Ado Annie and Will Parker). Or even Zauberflöte – the writing for Papagena and Papageno is very different from Pamina and Tamino, though it doesn’t always register that way in big opera house productions.

I’m a loyal Bartoli supporter – I haven’t loved everything she’s done, but she’s a genuine artist, whose work is illuminated by bold ideas. And – so far, at least – though I’ve seen West Side Story several times, and sampled many recordings, I’ve yet to hear the score fully realized. The original cast recording is incomplete; Bernstein’s DG remake is over-blown and vocally flawed (the problem here isn’t that he uses opera singers, but these particular opera singers). Tilson Thomas’s recent live recording is better, but still not all the way there.

Will this Salzburg production be the charm? Maybe, maybe not. But I’m going to give Cecilia Bartoli a chance. I hope you will, too.

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