Thursday, 11 October 2012

Phantom of the Opera

Her Majesty's Theatre, 9 October 2012 

Beerbohm Tree's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, at Her Majesty's Theatre, 1900.
(Shaw witticism here, where I found image)
Lloyd Webber is the modern equivalent for reasons deeper than loving the same theatre, and hating the dash.
One thing should be immediately obvious watching Phantom: its creators are in love with theatre. In particular, the dressing-up and stage transformation side of things. It has the perfect setting in the 100-year-old Her Majesty’s Theatre, commissioned by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who used it for his own brand of revolutionary stage magic.

From the moment the chandelier swings out and over the audience, while the set change, we might as well be back in the nineteenth century, where spectacular stage effects were expected, especially at the Paris Opera, which witnessed a volcano erupting during one of Meyerbeer’s spectaculars.

For the rest of the work capes swirl, men are elegant, women gorgeous, rooftops have magnificent night-time views, candelabras emerge from watery mist, and everything looks like tremendous fun.

Unlike other mega-musicals, all inspired by this team, the spectacle seems appropriate, celebrating the Second Empire almost as effectively as Offenbach, though with much less mordant wit.

I saw the recent production of Sweeney Todd, and it came as a shock to recall that Harold Prince directed both musicals. Sondheim and Lloyd Webber / Mackintosh are on opposite ends of the music theatre spectrum, though this is for reasons different than the usual association of the former with serious art and the latter with entertainment. 

Although Sweeney is a powerful music drama (and Phantom isn’t), it is less linked to its medium. You can imagine a successful film of Sweeney Todd, while it’s no surprise the film version of Phantom was disappointing.

Film, especially Hollywood film, can fulfil a similar function as spectacle, but Phantom proves that something about good theatrical spectacle remains indivisible from the theatre.

The weaknesses of this work become more prominent in the second act. We’re asked to sympathise firstly with a mass murdering psychopath, then believe in his redemption through love, though it’s a peculiar form of love, as Christine has no intention of staying with him.

I found this situation sickening, exceeding the sentimentality of even the melodramas popular at the Paris Opera of the period. Christine – and the audience – gets to appear virtuous by ‘bravely’ kissing a deformed man, while of course she couldn’t be expected to love him in the normal way, and he must renounce her. Then disappear into the sewers forever, presumably.

Music can transform anything, but the more unappealing the situation, the more it needs to work to distract us. If we are to believe something so vile, the music had better soar like Gounod. I didn’t feel that, though it seems many in the audience did. 

There are other problems. Loosely parodying the conventions of opera is risky stuff, when the alternative is supposed to be the conventions of musical theatre. Christine’s excruciatingly bad “Wishing you were somehow here again” is made even worse by the actress’ melodramatic gestures.

Ironically the producers employ singers for the ‘bad opera stars’ who sing perfectly well, and so expose Christine’s supposedly more realistic singing as affectation. It doesn’t help that Sofia Escobar’s Christine sounds better in the trills of her operatic Hannibal aria than in being the pop singer her character subsequently becomes.  

And after 26 years, some staleness in the production could e expected, and I think the masquerade opening the second half was the prime candidate for renovation.  

Otherwise, the dated aspects are inherent in the work itself. The cast were excellent, though amplification did its usual job of making them look as if they were miming to a soundtrack.

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