THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 2nd April, 2013
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s money-spinning adaptation of Gaston Le Roux’s gothic pot-boiler from 1910 returns in this new production. It’s a mixed bag of romance, suspense, pastiche and cod opera, telling the tale of an ingénue in the thrall of a deformed musical genius. Katie Hall plays Sarah Brightman – sorry, Christine Daaé – the chorine plucked from the ballet troupe for stardom. She hears a voice and immediately think it’s the ‘angel of music’, as you do, and not some creep perving on her through the dressing room mirror. Said creep takes her below the opera house on a gondola ride through the mists to his underground lair, presumably in the sewer system of Paris. In this heady atmosphere, he introduces her to the sensual aspects of music, with some performance-enhancing tips. He is seductive but rather heavy-handed with his organ.
It’s the stuff of melodrama and fairy tale but it takes itself a little too seriously, I find. The score has some clever nods to classical music (a Mozart pastiche is fun – a high camp Marriage of Figaro sequence) but the title song sticks out like a sore thumb. It is in desperate need of rearranging to make it fit with the rest of the orchestration. As the phantom leads Christine to the murky depths we are suddenly blasted with electronic bass beats and rock guitars, yanking us from fin de siècle Paris to 1980s Top of the Pops. It is incongruous and kills the atmosphere.
The phantom is also known as the ‘opera ghost’ and not only has he been causing ‘accidents’ for many a year, he demands that a particular box is reserved for him and furthermore extorts a hefty cash sum from the managers on a regular basis. This should have tipped them off from the start; what would a ghost need of money? Amazingly, this bullying is tolerated. It escalates into terrorism and murder, as the phantom makes demands on how the productions should be performed. He’s a nasty piece of work to be sure, but I have no sympathy for the ninnies who put up with this behaviour. By the end of the first half, when Christine has decided to pair up with dashing and wealthy cipher Raoul, the phantom bleats out his heartache. I couldn’t care less. It is only in the second half that we get to hear of some of his back story, and his character is fleshed out a little. It’s no excuse for his crimes however. As a tragic figure, the phantom fails to move, in the same way that a Quasimodo or even a King Kong does. I think the structure of the plot is to blame for this.
Katie Hall is striking as warbler Christine. Simon Bailey’s Raoul is in good voice but doesn’t have much to do. He is Jekyll to the phantom’s Hyde, and Christine, having dabbled with the darker side of the human psyche, opts for the respectable. The phantom awakes her sexuality but she has to grow up and settle down with a decent, duller chap in the end. Earl Carpenter has a fine musical theatre voice and he certainly gives it some welly but I wonder why the phantom isn’t an operatic tenor; that would make sense given the context.
Angela M Caesar is great fun as scenery-chewing diva Carlotta. The ensemble looks and sounds fantastic but it is the staging of the production that dominates. Paul Brown’s set design is a thing of rotating walls and floating stairs, and largely responsible for the atmosphere of the piece. There is a couple of well-known tunes but far too much recitative that doesn’t lead anywhere. The most effective music is at the end, in the final trio between Christine and the two men in her life. Here, Lloyd Webber is not messing about with parody and pastiche but actually pulls off an operatic-style moment of dramatic and emotional power. It’s a long time coming.
The show is wildly successful, packing people in with many returning to see it time and time again. If they get something from it, that’s fine, but I find it a rather empty experience. On the whole, I prefer Lon Chaney’s silent movie version.