Tuesday, 15 November 2011

'The Phantom Of The Opera' at the Royal Albert Hall

This post has been in the works for ages and I am still not really happy with it. Nonetheless I shall post what I have but reserve the right to change it at a later time.
I declined to see this production in the flesh as I refuse to pay such stratospheric prices that were demanded. Add to the ticket price the cost of travel and accommodation and, frankly, I would have had to have started turning tricks to pay my rent and buy groceries for the rest of the year!
I saw Phantom 25 twice at the cinema; the live broadcast and the encore screening (which was the edited, final cut).
The live broadcast was incredibly exciting and was a sell-out. The camera work and sound were excellent with the orchestra thundering away in a way I never expected from a cinematic experience. The orchestrations, even the most subtle, seemed to come through as never heard before.
The cameras were able to get in real tight showcasing the cast perfectly, the only downfall being that the theatrical special effects were very obvious at times (after all they were designed for an audience who weren’t getting so close at the Albert Hall).
The encore, however, was a little disappointing with some editing choices being a mystery to me; whilst they were able to show things that were missed during the live broadcast (e.g. using a cover shot to show numerous things onstage at once instead of a close up) they chose to use some footage obviously from a different night to the soundtrack they were using meaning that the syncing of picture to vocal was a little off. They also cut some of the more ‘real’ moments e.g. during the live broadcast when Christine kisses the Phantom’s hand as she leaves as she pulls away a thin thread of saliva exists between hand and mouth. Not very nice, perhaps, but very real and raw and I hoped they would leave it in. they didn’t. They cut the shot just before the saliva thread is formed. Gutted. What the film version lacked (amongst other things) was truth and that saliva thread was a fine example of how Phantom 25 overshadowed the film version in most cases. Other editing choices also sped up the run of the show which, I felt, did nothing except make some sequences feel a tad rushed (the finale especially). Other editing choices I disagreed with include the first manager’s office scene where, in the live broadcast, we saw a lot of covering shots showed the staging well. The final cut depended more on close ups, robbing us of really being able to see the staging.
The music was also dulled in the final edit. Nigel Wright as co-producer of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music for 20 years, has a knack for eroding the excitement out of an orchestration (just listen to the 1996 Jesus Christ Superstar album in comparison to the original – it’s too polished and sanitised) and he has done the same with this soundtrack. Where once the cymbals were pronounced they are now muddled in the mix. The same goes for a lot of the string sounds. The title song was incredibly exciting during the live broadcast thanks to the strings (which were heard a lot throughout the live broadcast – more so than I’d ever heard previously) but not so much here.
As for the production itself, well there was a lot to admire; true the chandelier was that of the film rather than the stage show (probably because the stage version would have looked tiny in the Albert Hall) and didn’t fall, true a lot of the set was suggested on screens rather than in actual existence but they served the production well and generally complimented Maria Bjornson’s designs, even when they weren’t used.

The costumes looked as rich as ever although I absolutely loathed the mask worn by the Phantom; as has been the case over the past 15 years or so the mask has tended to be shaded and detailed with a large ‘eyebrow’, evidently to create a sense of 3D. However I much prefer the simplicity of the original masks – white with no enhanced features – which are beautiful and add to the air of mystery that the Phantom requires. The mask in this case also looked over-sized for some reason and seemed to dominate the actor’s face at times. That actor being, of course, Ramin Karimloo, who displayed a fine voice and some tremendous acting chops – very much in evidence thanks to the camera close-ups. His Christine, Sierra Boggess, matched him with no effort adding one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard to an acting performance that truly made Christine into a real person, more so than ever before.
The supporting cast was generally excellent, although not necessarily all the best at playing these characters: Meg is a rather sorry character to play and whilst Daisy Maywood performs well she looks a little too old at times to play the innocent dancer.
The managers are performed well with rounded performances that, at least in the live broadcast, highlighted their comedic element.  Opera tenor Wynne Evans lent an excellent voice to Piangi but I felt the direction he was given (to make him look inept) didn’t really help. Wendy Ferguson as a last minute stand for KieraGiry. Hadley Fraser was a more than competent Raoul but the character was altered from that of the original production in that he was directed to be quite a domineering and harsh suitor for Christine. One wonders how she could possibly have fallen for him and this characterization doesn’t gel with the lyrics he sings. The blame lands squarely with the director Laurence Conner who, I’m afraid, is no Hal Prince (the original director); he certainly presents a decent representation of the London production but his individual directorial touches often contradict those of Prince’s original staging – making Raoul and Christine’s relationship, and hers with the Phantom, different so as to tie in with the sequel Love Never Dies simply cannot work with the material that constitutes the original. Whether it was the director's decision or that of the producers the new relationship dynamic is against that set up by Prince and damages the production. Conner’s other touches render the Phantom less mysterious and frightening – we see him too much; from the overture, where we see him playing the organ (was that really necessary?) to his killing of Buquet high above the stage (a lift from the flawed film). Hal Prince always had  surprises strewn throughout the original production and many of these were erased (perhaps because of staging purposes in the Albert Hall – but then this should have been looked at from some other viewpoint) eroding the Phantom’s omnipotent presence and replacing that menace with more physical Phantom moments.
Conner is directing the ‘new’ production which will tour the UK next year (‘new’ despite retaining Bjornson’s costumes) and I do wonder how well he’ll do and which of his choices made here will be carried over?
Anthony Inglis’ musical direction was fluid and superior to when I saw him conduct the London show several years back. The orchestra, at least in the live broadcast, had never sounded better; even the film score paled in comparison.
While there is much I didn’t like in this production it was a fine production and, more or less, a good representation of the theatrical production. If anything it highlighted how good Phantom could be as a well-made movie.

The finale was fitting with several Phantoms of past and present singing (including with original Christine Sarah Brightman, whose voice was mixed better in the re-broadcast, despite the producers still using the pre-recorded vocals at the end of the number which are from 25 years past) and Michael Crawford’s appearance was moving, if a little disappointing for ’Phans’ since he didn’t sing (save that final note of Music of the Night sung by the entire company – indeed his voice is still so distinctive it was very easy to hear him amongst them all). Oddly missing, however, was Richard Stilgoe who co-wrote the book and supplied additional lyrics whilst original director Hal Prince was otherwise occupied in America, although he did see the live broadcast. I do wonder what Prince thought of the changes made to the direction of the show, but I doubt we'll ever know.
So altogether I preferred the live broadcast to the final cut but it is still good to see that this wonderful show has life, energy and the power to move.
I cannot wait to see it in London again (and, yes, I will see the tour – after all curiosity is a fine thing).

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