Leonard Bernstein8:00, 22nd January 2018
Faber & Faber, 624 pages, £14.99
This paperback reprint of the British tv producer, director, and broadcaster’s 1994 homage to the American musician is a welcome addition to the already consequential Bernstein centenary hoopla. In a candid new introduction helpfully referring to published Bernsteiniana of the past two decades, Burton admits that his book was ‘discreet about [his] closeness’ to the subject, since ‘as his regular film director I was intimately involved with Bernstein and his worlds for 25 years.’ An unabashed worshipper at the shrine, Burton generally soft-pedals critiques, even valid ones, in favour of overarching tolerance and understanding. While this gives a friendly, generous tone to the sometimes edulcorated narrative, it does not fully capture the truly operatic, over-the-top hysteria with which Bernstein lived much of his life. More people in these pages fall to their knees with emotion than in most World Cup memoirs.
While operatic highlights, such as the collaborations during the 1950s at La Scala between Bernstein and Maria Callas, are described here, there is little suggestion of why contemporaneous, and later, attempts by Bernstein to conduct Puccini’s La bohème bore such drab, confused results.
Sometimes the biographer seems swept up in Bernstein’s dizzying multitude of projects, soberly presenting at face value implausible ones, such as the idea circa 1980 that the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau would be eager to star as the paedophile Humbert Humbert in a Bernstein-composed setting of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
Happily, this abortive project did not mar cherished memories of the Fischer-Dieskau/Bernstein collaboration from 1966 in Verdi’s Falstaff.
This gem, and a vigorous Beethoven’s Fidelio from 1970 apart, Bernstein’s operatic discography can be a mixed blessing. One might never guess this from reading Burton’s dutiful praise of Bernstein’s ‘sumptuous’ Rosenkavalier from 1971, overlooking its iffy casting, a problem that dogged several of Bernstein’s opera recordings, especially Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from 1981 and Bizet’s Carmen from 1973.
About the quality of the operas Bernstein composed, Burton is better on a success such as Trouble in Tahiti (1952) than on the uneven A Quiet Place (1983).