ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER: Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall, Blu-ray (2011)

by | Mar 9, 2012 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER: Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall, Blu-ray (2011) 
Performance in Celebration of 25 Years
Conductor: Anthony Inglis
Cast: Ramin Karimloo (Phantom)/ Sierra Boggess (Christine)/ Hadley Fraser (Raoul)/ Wendy Ferguson (Carlotta)
Producers: Dione Orrom, Brett Sullivan
Director: Laurence Connor
Studio: Universal 61121260
Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9 1080p HD
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, PCM Stereo 2.0
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: “Making of Phantom 25”
Length: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Rating: ****1/2
I have had a love/hate relationship with Andrew Lloyd Webber ever since Jesus Christ Superstar, and the popularity of Phantom of the Opera only complicates matters. There is no question that Webber has a brilliant and gifted ability to create sumptuous melodies that fit the lyrics to a tee. There is no doubt of his dramatic instincts either; Phantom testifies to that most assuredly. But it’s what’s lacking under the hood that most bothers me. Far too many times I detect a lack of harmonic complexity and underpinning, and often feel like the composer strives for cheap effect—like his multitudinous key changes and big phrase endings—instead of offering us really substantial musical fodder. Take Leonard Bernstein for example—nowhere in Phantom is there even one number that rivals any of the music from West Side Story in nuance, creativity, or inspiration, music that you are constantly hearing new things in and making new discoveries with. Once Phantom plays the whole wad is blown first time through.
Yet this does not stop me from loving the spectacle and the show, and sometimes a huge sweeping melody like “All I Ask of You”, vacuous though it is, sends chills down the spine like no other. Spectacular melody alone can go a long way to carrying the day, and Webber certainly knows how to do it.
Until now there has been no credible video version of Phantom, the highest grossing show in history (5+ billion dollars worldwide) as well as the longest running, and when the film version came out many people rejoiced. It got lukewarm reviews from many quarters, especially from those who appreciated the stage production’s tightly-knit dramatic sequences substituted by a lot of “filling in the story blanks” that there is just no time for in a live performance. I thought it brilliant—Emmy Rossum is simply seductive as Christine, and Irish actor/rocker Gerard Butler is hard-nosed and suitably threatening while also sympathetic. The film voices did not surpass Michael Crawford, whose angular and subtle emotional inflections are unsurpassed, or Sarah Brightman, who has defined the role forever, but they were very good indeed, and the chemistry between them electric. Patrick Wilson as Raoul, Minnie Driver as Carlotta, and Miranda Richardson as Madame Giry were excellent, though Driver’s portrayal, amusing as it is, is also a little caricatured. The opening sequence with the chandelier is wonderfully handled, with the gradual transition from black and white to color.
I have a few problems with this production, so here they are: The aforementioned chandelier, which thrills audiences around the world with its size and plunge to the stage at the end of Act I, does nothing here but light up and shoot off fireworks while hanging stationary in the middle of the hall—really disappointing even though I understand the logistics of rigging the plunge in the Royal Albert Hall. Often I felt that the filming was as concerned with presenting the home audience with the “spectacle” as well as the show itself, panning out to the crowd in the hall at times, showing the huge screen atop the already high-up orchestra in order for the cheap seats to see the action—we at home have no such need. And though I understand the necessity, there is something about seeing all of the singers wearing those clear-plastic see-through head microphones that reminds me too much of a rock concert.
Production-wise, Webber has stretched out the ballets and opera-scenes that give us uninteresting music and slows down the action way too much, making the show a lot longer than you see in the theater. There is not enough “snap” in the timing to keep it moving satisfactorily, though that does pick up with the advent of the opening of the second act, where “Masquerade”, with its cast of 140 “real” people instead of the mannequins usually stationed on the staircase, is given a performance for the ages.
The costumes are quite literally from productions all over the world, and as such lack consistency; though for a gala like this they are quite exquisite and gloriously colorful. The logistics of getting people on and off the stage are painfully obvious, but some of the patented Phantom tricks like the moving ramp/staircase are kept in place, and the scenery in general is ravishing.
But the question is still going to be: how are the vocals? Ramin Karimloo has one of the most operatic voices I have heard in the role of the Phantom, and as a result I miss the expressivity that Michael Crawford brings to the part. He also has some trouble with sustaining his lines in some of the lower music. I don’t think that his performance is as good as Butler’s in the movie even though he is obviously a better singer. But things pick up as the show progresses. Denver-born Sierra Boggess, known for her Little Mermaid on Broadway and a host of other roles, also played the part of Christine in the Las Vegas production, and has a simply sensational voice which is showcased at several junctions to enthusiastic applause—she is really the star of this show. I miss the uniqueness of Brightman—but always will—yet I doubt the role has ever been sung better. Hadley Fraser (Raoul) has a more intense voice than Patrick Wilson in the movie and acts as well, though Wilson presents a sort of naive vulnerability that fits the role better. Wendy Ferguson (Carlotta) brings a more serious note to her character, one that relies on the substance of the snubbed soprano and shows a real determination to stand up to the Phantom. Her voice is great, truly operatic, and while she isn’t as funny as Driver in the movie, she does add gravitas to a part that sorely lacks it in most productions.
The filming on Blu-ray is superb, as is the surround sound, but so is the movie. The bonus feature is rather cheesy, an uninteresting take from around the set a day before the premiere, about 17 minutes long. There is a two-disc set of this performance for a lot more money that evidently delves into more detail. The most interesting “bonus” occurs at the end of the musical, where Webber himself addresses the audience, introduces the original cast (those still around), and of course Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, who even sings “The Phantom of the Opera” with four of the previous Phantoms (Crawford, for some reason, does not sing). Brightman’s age shows somewhat in her vocalizing, but for a 52-year-old woman she still belts out the final note thrillingly. This is a suitable tribute to what has a right to be considered the most popular musical in history, despite the few caveats. Phantom lovers everywhere will have to have it.
Steven Ritter

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