April 24, 2012

The 25 Anniversary of what is now the longest running musical in Broadway history was celebrated last October with not just a concert, but a full staging of the entire show in London’s massive Royal Albert Hall with its seating of over 5,000. It was captured on audio and video discs, each or either of which may make you wish you had been there.

It is not likely that any one who really wants to see The Phantom of the Opera hasn’t already attended a performance either in London or on Broadway, or one of the innumerable stops of the touring production – or, for that matter, in Las Vegas where a slightly shortened version releases its audience into the casino early enough to get some gambling in. Perhaps you saw the movie version that came out in 2004.

If you have somehow resisted for a quarter century, but are now willing to sample “the magic of the music of the night,” the video (available in DVD or in Blu-Ray) provides a full viewing experience. It documents what was not a simple concert, but wasn’t a simple repeat of the original either. After all, that original was still playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London as well as at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway where it’s number of performances has now passed an astonishing 10,000. (Tonight’s performance will be the 10,083rd!)

Instead, what producer Cameron Macintosh staged for one night at the Royal Albert Hall, a concert venue that doesn’t have a proscenium stage, was akin to an environmental production in which the hall itself became the opera house haunted by the famous “Opera Ghost.”

Using the design concepts of the original, which had been the work of the late Maria Björnson, set designer Matt Kinley and projection designer Jon Driscoll used the latest video screen and projection technology to augment two staircases and multiple platforms with video screens above and behind a large playing space. A huge orchestra hovered on a platform and the sound of the piece became all enveloping. The cast, including actors, dancers and ensemble members numbered 145.

The Original London Cast recording was a two-disc set which ran 1:40 with a few judicious cuts in the opera segments but was relatively complete musically. It had sterling performances by Michael Crawford as the Phantom, Sarah Brightman as his muse, Christine Daaé, and Steve Barton as her childhood sweetheart, Raoul.

This new recording is lengthier, providing the full 2:16 of the actual show’s length including dialogue. Then it runs on for another 18 minutes to present the curtain calls, the introduction of special guests, and an encore which is thrilling, but the disc would be better if they had deleted the non-musical material. Just how many times do you think you want to listen to Andrew Lloyd Webber send a greeting to Harold Prince who, he had been told, was watching the telecast from New York?

The video disc (DVD or Blu-Ray) is of the full evening as it was captured for streaming into movie theaters around the world. It gives a close-up view of the performance that, while it can’t quite match the excitement of actually being present for a live performance, leaves you with something approaching the feeling of having been there.

Whether you are listening to the CD or watching the video disc, you can appreciate just how spectacular a score Andrew Lloyd Webber created. It has been belittled over the years for its repetition and for the supposed simplicity of some of its melodies. As a theatrical score, however, the range of styles from opera segments to music hall routines and rhapsodic love songs to fully scored gothic drama is impressive and the repetition works dramatically. What Lloyd Webber’s detractors call “simplicity” is actually melodic purity which makes many of the musical lines memorable.

The cast of the 25 Anniversary concert is superb. Ramin Karimloo, who took over the title role in London in 2007 and originated the role in the sequel Love Never Dies, is a thoroughly tormented and demented Phantom and his voice is as strong and clear as the score requires. His Christine Daaé is Sierra Boggess whose range is as impressive as was that of Sarah Brightman for whom the role was written. Boggess sang the role in the Las Vegas production in 2006 and then left the work of Lloyd Webber to star on Broadway in The Little Mermaid. Her return to Lloyd Webber’s music was as Christine in the London production of Love Never Dies. Rounding out the leading triangle of the story is Hadley Fraser who bounces through the youngster-in-love segments of the story with flair.

Two other cast members stand out on the video disc although neither makes quite as much impression on the audio CD. One is Wendy Ferguson as Carlotta, the diva replaced by the Phantom’s protege. More than any of the actresses I’ve seen play Carlotta, Ferguson makes her something more than an obstacle to be shoved aside. You can actually sympathize with her in her plight as a highly talented, hard working opera singer who earned her star status and was at least one reason for the success of the opera company but who has been hanging on to her position only because of the lack of competition.

Also impressive on the video disc but, for obvious reasons, not on the audio CD, is Sergie Polunin, a principal dancer in the Royal Ballet who dances as the Slave Master in the ballet of the opera Hannibal which is being performed in the first act of the show, and then the Shepherd in the opera Il Muto in the second act. Gillian Lynne, the original choreographer, handled the choreography for this much larger cast. For the original she had had only five dancers for the ballet while here she uses a corps de pallet of 20. She  built up the role of the Slave Master / Shepherd to highlight Polunin’s physique and his athletic prowess, especially his leaping ability.

The thrilling encore features the return of the original Christine, Sarah Brightman backed not by just one Phantom but by a series of some of the most famous actors to play the role over the years: Peter Jöback, John Owen-Jones, Anthony Warlow, and Colm Wilkinson. The overall effect of the encore is thrilling, although some of the singing demonstrates the rough edges of elapsed time and it might have benefited from a bit more rehearsal time.

Both the CD and the DVD present the audio’s extremely wide dynamic range without much compression. As a result, if you set the volume so that the loudest moments are comfortable, the quietest moments will be nearly inaudible. You may find it irritating that you need to “ride the volume control.” Both also end on a very strange note for the orchestra re-plays the entr’acte music up to its final, unresolved chord. In the show, that serves as a set-up for the thumping riff that opens the second act. Without that following riff, however, the final chord of the entr’acte simply hangs there awaiting the resolution that never comes.

Phantom of the Opera

25th Anniversary Concert Staging

Video on DVD or Blu-Ray

160 minutes including a documentary on the anniversary staging
DVD  $29.98 / ASIN: B0055FR7YE
Blu- Ray $39.98 / ASIN:B0055FS4ZU

CD - 2 Discs
Running time 2:34 over 22 tracks
Packaged with notes by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh
List price $16.48

Phantom of the Opera

 25th Anniversary Concert Staging