What is it about Shakespeare's Roméo and Juliet that has inspired so many musical masterpieces in so many genres? There are more than a few who maintain that Prokofieff's Roméo and Juliet is the greatest full-length ballet ever written. But of course, there are other famous and great works of the same title, like the dramatic symphony by Berlioz, the opera by Gounod and the Overture-Fantasy by Tchaikovsky. And, too, though its title breaks with Shakespeare, there's Bernstein's West Side Story.
There are many who contend it is this American composer's greatest work, greater than his Mass and symphonies and other forays into the musical theater. Leaving aside claims about greatness, one must stand in awe of the sheer genius in this score. There are several great tunes and Sondheim's lyrics are boldly imaginative, if a bit self-consciously hip for their time. Maria, Tonight and Somewhere are classics of the Broadway musical genre. And the music for Quintet/Tonight (track 12) is astonishingly brilliant, without doubt the most outstanding number in the score.
It opens with a rhythmic theme which is essentially pure Stravinsky, jazzed-up Stravinsky, but Stravinsky nonetheless. And when Tonight is presented for the second time here, sung by Maria who is soon joined by Tony, it is heard against the Bernardo-led Quintet music, yielding a sonic conflict between love and hate, as the two themes vie for supremacy.
But, of course, there are many other attractive numbers in the musical, including Something's Coming (sung by Tony; track 3), Maria (Tony; track 7); Tonight (Maria and Tony; track 8), and Somewhere (sung here by Michelle Prentice; track 18). Most of the ballet music is also compelling, including the brilliant Prologue (track 1). But the burning question here is, how does this recording stack up to the others, which include the 1985 Bernstein-led effort on DG?
Bernstein cast Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras in the leads, giving the work an operatic and not always appropriate character. There were also complete recordings by John Owen Edwards on TER that had little-known singers in the leads and Barry Wordsworth on IMG who had Barbara Bonney and Michael Ball as Maria and Tony. Consensus has been (though I'll hedge a bit) that good though the Bernstein was, the John Owen Edwards effort was even better. But now, this Naxos version must be ranked at the top. For one thing, its singers have solid backgrounds in the musical theater. Betsi Morrison has a lovely voice, even if it is a bit underpowered, and she's dramatically convincing as Maria, despite her accent which sounds a bit artificial at times. Mike Eldred's Tony is also excellent, and most of the rest of the cast is as well.
The most important factor here, though, may be the conductor. Kenneth Schermerhorn, a former student of Bernstein served as conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and American Ballet Theater, and is the current conductor of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Here he conducts the score with authority, and in not a single instance does he seem to lose his grip on the direction of the work's drama. He leads the original version of the score, which, other than a few changes in the Prologue, America (track 9) and some other places, is virtually the same as in the other recorded renditions.
The sound is vivid and the notes – by Sid Ramin, one of the orchestrators of the score, and Schermerhorn – are highly informative, making this a first-class production in the Naxos American Classics series.
Copyright © 2003, Robert Cummings