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Although composed for Broadway, "West Side Story" is just as demanding as some of the world's most challenging operas.

Solos with Swagger

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Reports of violence spreading from city to city are not uncommon. Years ago the Crips, Bloods and Latin Kings set everyone's teeth on edge. That gang warfare from Norfolk would spread to Richmond is not too unbelievable, that it would take place on the stage of the Carpenter Center, however, taxes the imagination. Relax, these gangs are stuck in the '50s with zip guns and hip talk and are more likely to square off with a mambo than fight like Rambo. The Virginia Opera's production of "West Side Story" opens this week at the Carpenter Center. Adapted from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, "West Side Story" is one of the greatest works of our time. Crafted by choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, "West Side Story" continues to be one of the finest combinations of music and drama as you are likely to find on a stage. To find it on an opera stage, however, is less likely. But, as soprano Gabriella Pochinki (Maria) maintains, "you must have operatic training to sing in West Side Story - Bernstein's music requires it." Pochinki, a native of Argentina and veteran of the world's great opera houses including the Teatro Piccolo Regio in Torino, Italy, the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, the Lucerne Stadsttheater in Switzerland, the Noga Theatre in Tel Aviv, and the Sazlburg Landestheatre where she performed Maria just two years ago, maintains that "you need more endurance to sing 'West Side Story' than Donizetti's 'Lucia di Lammermoor.'" "`West Side Story'" says Pochinki, " requires the same vocal range as Lauretta in Puccini's 'Gianni Schicchi' or Nanetta in Verdi's 'Falstaff.' You can sing 'West Side Story' from beginning to end as an opera." Tenor Sean McDermott (Tony) brings the same depth of experience to the Virginia Opera's production, but from the opposing tradition. An accomplished on- and off-Broadway performer, including the role of Whizzer opposite Mandy Patinkin in "Falsettos," Chris in "Miss Saigon," Rusty in "Starlight Express" and Danny Zuko in the revival of "Grease," McDermott says he was "thrilled" to be asked to do "West Side Story." "Its really been interesting watching the chemistry between Sean and Gabriella," says conductor Dan Saunders, "they both fully realize that they come from two different cultures — just like Tony and Maria - yet there is a meeting of the minds. With great effect." Saunders admits "organically joining the music to the drama in this production has been a challenge." And then there's the complexity of the choreography - a problem largely foreign to opera. "With dancers," confides Saunders, "you have to find exactly the right tempo, or they can't hit their marks." Still more of the challenge comes from the nature Bernstein's music. The orchestra for this production contains not only players from the Virginia Symphony, but also well-known local jazz artists. "I wish all the great opera houses would perform Bernstein," says Pochinki. "It's more appropriate for the Met or La Scala than Broadway. Bernstein is the composer of our century."

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