Thursday, April 11, 2013

West Side Story

Bernstein in Clink

Just beyond Devizes in Wiltshire there was a sign with the word OPERA written large. This targeted the venue of a performance that evening, March 10, the last of four, of Bernstein's West Side Story in HM Prison, Erlestoke, in an enclave, low buildings; with high wire mesh walls (you would need strong wire cutters to evade the security). Close on five hundred men are locked in with a staff of 400 'carers'.

The cast consists of prison inmates except for the male lead Robin Bailey, 'Jet' – well cast, fine voice in the Romeo role, and the ten girls headed by Welsh soprano, Caryl Hughes, every inch and beautifully sounded note a 'Juliet'. These were professional, the rest residents. There were five hundred closely packed in the audience, all duly finger-printed and ticketed, a captive audience in two senses because the performance was first class.

Like the score itself. If only one work by Bernstein were to survive, West Side Story surely should be that one, together with Rosenkavalier, Turandot through to Peter Grimes and other Britten  numbers. Interesting that at least three of the masterpieces of the 20th century are hybrids, in corporating music of a popular style, jazz, musicals and so on. West Side begins with jazz and ends (somewhere) with a number that is almost Brahmsian. Inspiration ran high with at least half a dozen hits and masterly continuity. Toby Purser directed a small combo that did justice to a work that goes to the heart and is emotionally provoking.

The production (Nikki Woolaston) was of a thoroughly professional standard, dancing, costumes to match.

The idea of prison performances was conceived by Wasfi Kani, music director of Pimlico Opera and I remember seeing Sweeney Todd some twenty-two years ago in Wormwood Scrubs (in the murderer's wing!) Each year sees performances in various gaols in London and the home countries. Authorities, inmates and audiences have all enjoyed the experiences. How many prisoners have gone straight as a result is not known.

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