Opera maverick Miller sets West Side Story in Renaissance Italy

Still pondering on artistic validity of re-naming the Sharks as 'Capulets'

Famed for daring opera productions that relocate historical action to other periods for dramatic effect, Dr. Jonathan Miller has wowed audiences and critics by setting his new production of Leonard Bernstein’s classic, West Side Story, in 14th century Verona.

Dr Miller told a gathering of critics at a preview: ‘I wanted to confound people’s expectations of this Bernstein masterpiece by taking it as far as possible away from its 1950s New York context. And it works! In my earlier productions, I found it easy to give Rigoletto a Mafia-based interpretation or to set The Elixir of Love in America’s diner culture, but I felt I was getting lazy and needed a new challenge.’

Miller explained that in resetting the passion of ‘Romeo and Maria’ in Renaissance Italy, he had found many resonances which brought added frisson to Bernstein’s work. ‘It’s uncanny how well it works in the medieval context, with its setting of squares, high walls and balconies.’

After seeing the preview, Rupert Christiansen writes in today’s Daily Telegraph: ‘Verona at the height of the Renaissance was a vibrant centre of culture and commerce, but the rivalries between noble families and the degree of violence exhibited by the citizens of the city state far surpass the rather tame themes of teenage gang warfare in Bernstein’s original.’

The production features another new departure for Miller, with members of the chorus standing in rows at the back of the stage to avoid detracting from the unfolding story of Romeo and Maria. He explained: ‘You can only do so much with having characters standing around informally, pretending to chat about interesting things, or even dancing for God’s sake, but I wanted to inject a note of realism and have crowds standing around looking bored, like they do in real life.’

Miller said he was particularly pleased with the ending. ‘Instead of just having a street shooting, I’ve given it a really atmospheric setting in a family crypt. There’s this terrific twist where one of them takes a sleeping potion, and then…but I’m not going to spoil it by giving the end away.’

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Posted: Feb 26th, 2010 by

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