Thursday, 30 September 2010

Thoughts on The Phantom of the Opera

Let's get one thing straight - I love love love The Phantom of the Opera.  I find the music spellbinding and wholly unlike anything I've ever heard in musical theater before.  I saw Phantom in Atlanta in 2004, but imagine my glee at being able to attend a production in its original theater (Her Majesty's, in London).  As the curtain rose and the bidding for various items from the opera house began, I was filled with a giddy energy.  As the theme music kicked in and the chandelier began its ascent to the ceiling, I was practically jumping up and down in my seat.  And then the cast started to sing.  I cannot express how completely unsatisfactory nearly the entire cast was; allow me to list my grievances against them in the order in which they presented themselves on stage.

Carlotta - I thought I was going to love this Carlotta.  When the overweight, large busted diva walked out onto the stage and began to sing, I found Wendy Ferguson everything that Carlotta ought to be - namely, a ridiculous, loud caricature of a coloratura soprano.  Ms. Ferguson ran into trouble, however, when she was forced to sing with other people.  Though her initial singing proved that she was capable of being truly LOUD, she was nearly imperceptible during her performance of Prima Donna.  Why?  Perhaps she was worried about drowning out the voices of the other actors, but then she's missing the point, for she is SUPPOSED to drown them out.  Her voice grew increasingly thin throughout the show, and I eventually just stopped caring.

Piangi - The good signor suffered from the same weakness as his female counterpart; he simply DID NOT SING OUT.  Piangi, like Carlotta, should be very, very LOUD.  Rohan Tickell, the actor who played Piangi, never projected, and his voice was lost in the mix when singing with the other actors.  Just awful.

Christine - Oh dear, here we go.  Perhaps I can't even fairly judge this role, since I am a little bit in love with Sarah Brightman; perhaps no one will ever be good enough.  But I know that's not true because I thoroughly enjoyed Marie Danvers' performance in Atlanta, and I also enjoy Lisa Vroman's interpretation of the role, so perhaps I'm not completely closed-minded.  The Christine of this production, Sofia Escobar, is a Portuguese woman; and when she spoke, she spoke with a Portuguese accent.  I know that the character is a Swede living in France, but for me, Christine will always be English.  I was willing to overlook Ms. Escobar's accent, but I cannot overlook her singing voice.  The difficult thing in criticizing her is that Sofia Escobar is not a bad singer, but I don't believe she is suited to the role.  In musical terms, Ms. Escobar is what is known as a soubrette - the lightest of all female voices, thin, airy, insubstantial, and sweet.  There are roles written for soubrettes - Eponine in Les Miserables comes to mind.  I firmly believe, however, that Christine should be played by a lyric soprano; in fact, the role was written specifically for the voice of Sarah Brightman (a lyric soprano).  A lyric soprano is a  light and sweet voice with great beauty of tone in contrast to the size and power of a dramatic soprano; however, the lyric soprano possess a greater strength and suppleness of voice than the soubrette.  The character of Meg Giry is a soubrette, but Meg never has to sing anything particularly difficult.  When Ms. Escobar overtaxed her thin voice in singing the role of Christine, the results were disastrous.  At many times, her voice took on an oddly flat character and lost all vibrato as if she were singing pop music rather than classical music; also, her upper register, though stronger than I would have imagined, managed to sound both shrill and hollow at the same time.  In my opinion, Ms. Escobar should stick to roles that better suit her voice; as I already mentioned, she would make a lovely Eponine or perhaps Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd; what she should NOT do is attempt to sing Cosette or Joanna, which is essentially what she did here.  Here's a video of her singing some dreadful song from some other musical so you can hear her for yourself.

The Phantom - The role of the Phantom is more crucial to the success of a production of The Phantom of the Opera than any other role save that of Christine, which is equally important.  As such, the Phantom cannot be simply a good singer, but he has to be a superlative singer.  This was my issue with the film version, because Gerard Butler could not sing AT ALL.  Michael Crawford, though he did not have a conventional classical voice, was perfect for the role because the unique blend of creepiness, sweetness, and strength in his voice suited the character perfectly.  Scott Davies, the Phantom of the production I attended, is a good singer - a VERY good singer, in fact.  I looked him up on the internet, and I was not surprised to find that he has a professional background in actual opera.  He has a rich, dark, powerful yet still lyric voice that reaches tenor highs but is surprisingly warm in the lower register; I suppose you might call him a tenor with a low tessitura.  Unfortunately for the show, he's not much of an actor; in fact, he's a dreadful OVERactor.  He seems to be of the mind that moans, wails, gasps, flailing about, and general histrionics make for a good performance; in fact, all they really do is ruin the songs in which they appear.  Michael Crawford (who won awards for his acting in Phantom) managed to express his feelings through his singing voice while still maintaing the tone of the music; Mr. Davies, on the other hand, apparently thinks it's appropriate to gasp his way through The Music of the Night like an invalid who needs oxygen.  If only he had toned it down a little, he would have been a very enjoyable Phantom; what a shame.  I managed to find a video of him performing the title song (it starts halfway through); he actually didn't do any moaning or gasping in this particular song (except when he yells "Sing for me!", which just sounds ridiculous), so he sounds quite good here.

I was severely disappointed that the actors playing so many of my favorite roles just, to be frank, sucked, but there were three other actors that stood out as really quite good, even better than they needed to be.

Madame Giry - The role of Madame Giry really doesn't require much technical expertise, but Cheryl McAvoy, the woman who played her in the production I attended, really had quite a fine voice, a strong lyric alto with a very pleasing and balanced vibrato.

Monsieur Firmin - One of the two new proprietors of the Opera Populaire (the other one being Monsieur Andre), Firmin is not really a role that requires a skilled singer.  Andre and Firmin always appear together, and their principle songs are Notes and Prima Donna.  While the man playing Andre was, as is usual, rather unremarkable, I noticed that Barry James, the actor playing Fermin, had a delightful lyric second tenor voice.  He had a sweet, dark timbre and a wonderful vibrato and was also fairly young and attractive (at least from afar), which leads me to believe that he could play a convincing Raoul in the future.  And speaking of Raoul....

Raoul - The role I've always ignored, the bland, boring Raoul, turned out to be the best thing about this production.  Will Barratt, as Raoul, shone in every facet of what is normally (for me, anyway) a throwaway role.  His voice actually very closely resembled that of Steve Barton, the original Raoul - that is to say, he had a sweet, bright, rich, and supply lryic tenor (as did Patrick Wilson in the film version).  I don't know why, because apparently all Raouls have the same sort of voice, but I really enjoyed his performance, probably because Scottt Davies as the Phantom was overacting so wildly.  Mr. Barratt hit all the right notes and turned Raoul from a boring plot device into a passionate man who is deeply in love with Christine and who will go to any lengths to save her from the madman who desires her.  In my opinion, a triumph.  I could only find one video on youtube with him on it; he comes in around 4:00; Little Lotte isn't exactly a song that shows off anyone's voice and Raoul only sings for a few seconds, but what can you do.

So, now that I'm done ranting, my overall impression?  Musically - lackluster.  However, the staging was wonderful, as it should be considering that Her Majesty's was where The Phantom of the Opera premiered 24 years ago.  I look forward to seeing the show again, hopefully with more apt singers in the lead roles.  The next show I will attend, perhaps on Monday, is Love Never Dies, the sequel to Phantom; I'll be sure to let you all know what I think of it!

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