|Cecilia Bartoli as Maria 1 © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli|
A long sentence, that. Nevertheless, there's something magic about Cecilia Bartoli. Every time she began to sing I found myself in tears, and not only because I was knackered. It's possible to pick holes, if you want to: her vibrato is large and fast, she was performing the role from the sidelines as Maria's older self (Bartoli is 50 this year, Maria is 16) looking back at her memories while a younger actress played 'Maria 2' and a certain amount of disbelief had to be suspended, not least because Tony - the otherwise excellent tenor Norman Reinhardt - was not similarly doubled and looked more like Maria 2's dad. Bartoli was therefore obliged to sing duets and ensemble numbers from far-distant parts of George Tsypin's vast, multilevel set and it is much to her credit and Dudamel's that this was pulled off with seamless ensemble. In the end, she has a knack for letting her sound strike us straight in the gut, as if her entire heart is given in the voice, and it grabs and twists you and wrings you out, no matter what your mind says. If you go to this show, do not wear mascara.
Predictably the whole thing has been panned elsewhere, but musically that judgment would seem unfair. Yes, it's miked. It's a musical; it's supposed to be miked. Someone complained that the words were unintelligible, but I could hear everything clear as day; the New York 1950s street-speak, though, is more than a little dated and may seem as Martian to today's youth as the 2016 equivalent does to those who share a ball-park vintage with Maria 1. Meanwhile, all plaudits to the magnificent Karen Olivo as a smoky-voiced Anita, electric physicality from the boys in striking new choreography by Liam Steel, and the Sharks girls who nearly stole the whole show with their sizzling "America".
|The company on stage. © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli|
Above all, the white-hot orchestra was the star of the day - they can probably play that "Mambo" standing on their heads by now, as it's become almost a signature piece for them, but Bernstein's score deserves luxury treatment (one can't help cringing when hearing it delivered by a tiny pit band in West End standard mode): drafting them in was one of Bartoli's most inspired ideas. She is the artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival - a short, Maytime relation of the giant summer shebang - and for Shakespeare anniversary year she filled it with works inspired by Romeo and Juliet. Incidentally, Norman Reinhardt is not related to Max Reinhardt, the summer festival's founder.
Verdict: moved to tears despite a flawed concept. But what's the real problem with that concept?
The director Philip Wm. McKinley came up with the notion of two Marias after wondering what becomes of Maria after the show ends. Unlike Shakespeare's Juliet, she does not die, but delivers a blistering speech over Tony's body that proves the futility of this cycle of violence that has taught her how to hate. Unfortunately, according to this reimagining, what happened next is that she went on working in the wedding dress shop, became its manager, never married, never stopped missing Tony - and now throws herself under a train, after which her soul and his are reunited in the Felsenreitschüle stratospheres.
Oh, come on! Maria is way too clever and spirited for that. Has she learned nothing from losing Tony? Of course she has. She has learned that hatred is terrible and life is short. Instead of mouldering away, would she not be spurred to devote herself to stopping the violence she could not prevent as a young girl?
She mourns Tony, of course. But let's remember, she's only known him for two days. She saves hard, works nights and sets up a youth support centre on the Upper West Side. She goes into gangland and recruits those affected by violence and trains them to work with their own communities to stop the killing. She cares for the frightened, lost youngsters as she would for her own children. She has quite a voice, and she learns how to inspire people with the power of her orations. She galvanises New York with her charisma and determination. She is elected mayor of New York City. And then she becomes the first woman president of the USA, long before Hillary Clinton. "Somewhere" can become her great, idealistic, political anthem. "We'll find a new way of living" is her campaign slogan.
That would be our Maria. That could be our Cecilia, if she were given a chance.
Bartoli interview to follow in due course.