Music in the shadow of darkness
There is an old saying … the wise do not rush. Having seen two performances I find myself in a difficult situation.What should I take to be the assessment criterion? The first-time staging of the original version of The Phantom of the Opera in Estonia is certainly a sign of a certain capability, also that of trust.And it is obviously a long-term project with an enormous amount of time, effort, energy, as well as money, having been contributed to it.Indeed, cooperation, co-play is the greatest charm of this performance.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera – the most successful musical of all time – that has, for 28 years already, been performed in London every night, is most demanding both vocally as well as technically. There is no place for amateurs here.Webber has also written a sequel to the story of Christine and the Phantom – the musical Love Never Dies –the plot of which at times takes turns quite characteristic of soap operas. The author of musicals Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats and Evita could hardly have forecasted such overwhelming and never ending success for his Phantom of the Opera.Webber had for a long time hoped to write a romantic story – his wish came true and was manifested with a premiere in London’s West End on 27 September 1985. Maria Bjørnson, the designer of the stage and more than 200 costumes, also created the half-mask that has by now become iconic. The legendary chandelier, gondola and the winding staircase also created by her, received a great array of awards.
The title character of the musical – the Phantom – a magician and conjurer, has the air of a supernatural being, thereby giving rise to the complex nature of the production. It is a most thankworthy of roles the wide emotional scope of which offers an unlimited number of ways for interpretation both for the director as well as the actor performing the title role.In the film of the same title directed by Joel Schumacher in 2004, that received the composer’s blessing, the Phantom played by Gerard Butler is characterised by masculine strength and passion – his relationship with Christine is charged with sexual tension. The attraction between the two is obviously both spiritual as well as physical and that is why Raoul, at times, seems such an incomprehensible choice. As if an easier way out for Christine.
The Phantom in Malvius’s performance – a human being, who damaged his face and wounded his soul in the war, yearns for beauty, searching for understanding and compassion from Christine. A certain unremitting craving persists in him throughout the performance – even at times of enragement this fragile emotion flickers under the surface. The destroyed world and the lost hope for a better tomorrow are in their own special way stressed by the ruins of the Vanemuine theatre exposed on the side panels.
The technically complicated production has very good scenes and scenes that are not so good. At times the main attention is directed too much at encompassing the mysticism and not so much at human relations. One of the most successful scenes is on the roof where Raoul and Christine, fleeing from the Phantom, open up their hearts to one another. Scarce means, but the result is so natural and sweet. And the way the Phantom turns himself out of the shade of the golden cherub when the two lovers leave, is extremely impressive. But the solution used in the graveyard scene remained cryptic both times. The beginning is promising, but then everything is somehow left as if hanging in the air. The Phantom threatens Raoul, besieging him with fire, but at one point in the midst of all this uproar, Raoul and Christine simply walk away and the Phantom retreats, as well. Why? What changed? There is so much smoke in this scene that it makes me wonder how can one sing in such a cloud of smoke anyhow? Stage smoke is a recurrent character in the performance. It clearly adds effect, helping to create the atmosphere, but maybe it is indeed the smoke that makes the stage design to look grey and faded at times. But if one thinks that it is, indeed, an old opera house, then in principle it is even justified.
At the premiere in the Vanemuine evidently great effort and energy goes to the technical implementation. One can feel the shudder of fear – how will everything turn out? The musical part, however, works surprisingly smoothly. At Nordea Concert Hall everything is more confident, but paradoxically there are more slips in the musical implementation. It may partly be due to the new hall simply being unfamiliar. Compared to the Vanemuine, there is more air and space at Nordea, but the performance designed for the Vanemuine seems cramped in certain scenes on its vastly bigger stage. In my mind amplification and its fluctuating quality in a way turned out to be fatal for the performance in Tallinn.Louder is not always better. Most of the audience are not deaf and artificial sound makes the human voice sound hardened and colder anyhow, especially when there is too much of it.
The hero of The Phantom of the Opera is literally and figuratively speaking Stephen Hansen. To learn the whole score in Estonian and perform it only with a slight accent is an accomplishment on its own. However, I cannot help but wonder how the role would have sounded if he had sung in the original language. The ghostly Phantom is such a diverse character – every word carries weight, every thought conveys a shade. But if the performer does not understand the nuances in the text in detail, the character played suffers to some extent. Let us be honest – most of the audience hears this music in English in their heads, probably most of the cast does too.How sensible was it to stage it in Estonian? Naturally there are both pros and cons here. The dialogues were certainly more lucid for the Estonian-speaking audience, but parts of the text were lost in singing, as always is the case. I admit that at times I used the screen as an aid to understand the text, looking at the English version. And some things are impossible to translate – nothing beats the original.
But speaking of Hansen, his performance was masterful, despite the language barrier. Alas, the one thing lacking in the performance, was the powerful male energy. All the more so as the second and more successful of Christine’s admirers – Raoul – has more of a lyrical temperament in his nature. One cannot but simply praise Koit Toome‘s performance. It makes one even regret that Raoul does not sing more as his singing was truly brilliant. Estonia’s own Michael Ball.
Hanna-Liina Võsa and Maria Listra radiated in the role of Christine.Both are beautiful, natural, sincere and very musical. And one can feel in the case of both of them that they are on their way. Hanna-Liina Võsa is on her way from pop singing to classical singing and Maria Listra the other way around, both maintaining their face and personality, not replicating one another. Hanna-Liina Võsa’s Christine may have had more of girlish naiveté to her, while Maria Listra’s Christine in her maturity has a certain amount of subtle aristocracy. Listra and Hansen’s magnificent performance of the title song was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the evening.
All of the supporting roles were performed with love, there were no sloppy sketches. In particular, Kalle Sepp with his good posture and not too humorous interpretation of the role of monsieur André, forming an enjoyable comical duet with monsieur Firmin performed by Lauri Liiv. Also Reigo Tamme’s magnificent and enthralling Ubaldo Piangi (what a unique name for a tenor!). All in all I would like to say – well done! And in the best sense of the meaning.If the director Georg Malvius hoped that the audience would leave the theatre having received a valuable experience, I believe this wish is destined to come true many a time.