Sunday, September 27, 2015

Phantom of the National Opera

I enjoy musicals on many, many levels.

Two of these levels are enjoying a show for the spectacle, and for the content. For me, the original direction of The Phantom of the Opera is all about the spectacle. I've written about this before: I don't see Phantom to get any food for thought. It's fun for the 80s megamusical visuals, but it doesn't engage me on any deeper level.

That changed last year. The Estonian non-replica production proved that this musical can tell a story that interests me. The Estonian version didn't focus on the love triangle in between the young ingenue, the rich aristocrat and the mysterious Phantom. Instead, it told an fascinating coming-of-age tale about a brave, talented woman.

The new Finnish non-replica production of The Phantom of the Opera goes back to the roots. Finnish National Opera's take on the Phantom's story is enjoyable for the sights and sounds, but it remains quite empty inside.

The Phantom of the Opera is a huge show, literally.

Finnish National Opera's big stage is really wide and deep, and the auditorium seats 1350 people. For the most part, set designer Teppo Järvinen does great job turning the vast stage into an opera house. Järvinen creates many beautiful scenes, such as Phantom and Christine's descent to the Phantom's lair via a series of stairways, the Phantom's underground lair itself with its chandelabras and vines, and the rooftop of the opera house with its huge angel statue. Combined with Timo Alhanen's lights, the sets leave some strikingly gorgeous impressions.

Marjaana Mutanen's costumes have their ups and downs. I like the Phantom's unique rock star meets goth meets hippie look, with his golden mask and leather gloves. Christine, then, could pop out a little more – now, with her plain white and black costumes, the leading lady feels a bit lost into the crowd. The ensemble costumes are nice but not especially memorable.

I really like the way the show portrays the opera house. Many scenes take place backstage, with ensemble members wandering around and sets being built as the managers read the Phantom's latest notes. The hustle and bustle brings life to the scenes. Not to mention it's rare to see an ensemble of this size onstage, so the crowd scenes are worth seeing for the spectacle alone.

But maybe the dancing scenes, with Osku Heiskanen's choreography, could be more impressive? The musical has plenty of ballet dancers in the ensemble. I think they should get more time in the spotlight.

Finnish National Opera has a large orchestra and a big choir. Andrew Lloyd Webber's music sounds really lush and really beautiful, grander than I've ever heard it. The musical is lovely to listen to.

But... In musicals, music and lyrics go hand in hand. So, the Opera's decisions to perform the musical in English bothers me.

Of course, Finnish National Opera usually performs operas in their original language, and it seems their initial plan was to hire an international cast for their new musical production. The Phantom cast, however, is mainly from Finland – save for the Christines, who are from Estonia and Sweden. The audience is also mainly Finnish. With all 70 000 tickets for the show sold out in advance, the production certainly doesn't have to advertise to foreign musical fans now.

So it's a mainly Finnish cast with a Finnish accent performing in English for a mostly Finnish audience (sort of like this blog, actually. Ha!).

I think it's a shame. Unlike classic operas, Phantom is usually translated into the local language when a new international production opens. I would have preferred to hear the world's favourite musical in my native language. I'm sure international audience members could've kept up with the plot by reading the excellent subtitles the Opera offers for all of their productions.

Looking past the smoke and the mirrors, the sights and the sounds, Tiina Puumalainen's direction isn't to my tastes. Director Puumalainen doesn't give the Phantom's story any truely unique twists. The show is nice to watch, but it doesn't really make me think or feel for the characters.

I have mixed feelings about the flow of the show. The first act moves forward rather smoothly, but during the last scenes of the second act, the focus is lost. Suddenly, I have a hard time following the characters' motivations.

The final scene feels especially confusing. You need to believe Christine really loves Raoul for the scene to work, but here, I felt none of that. Partially, that is because the Christine/Phantom/Raoul trio is not particularily well balanced.

Olli Tuovinen's Raoul was presented as an angry, overly confident young man who fails his fiancée in her moment of despair. Ilkka Hämäläinen's Phantom, though he sings beautifully, is no more attractive. His Phantom is as a repugnant recluse who feels childish joy in Christine's presence. Valid interpretations of the characters in their own right, but together and in the context of this production, they don't work out. Why would Christine bother despairing over these two? Just ditch the creepy guys and start a new life as some other opera house's star soprano!

Hanna-Liina Võsa's Christine is by far my favourite performance of the main trio. Võsa has a beautiful voice. Her Christine seems rather fragile and afraid, maybe a bit too much of a damsel in distress to my liking – but overall, she is lovely and sweet. She however doesn't make me feel Christine's character growth as strongly as some others. Christine's ultimate decision in the final scene feels unfounded. (Võsa by the way also plays Christine in the Estonian production, but I haven't seen her there. Wonder how different she is in that direction?)

I hear the alternate cast offers completely different takes of the main characters (read more in Finnish in Laura's review). Maybe I would have enjoyed them better.

On the positive side, Kaisa Ranta's Carlotta charmed me. A perfect prima donna, she delivers a hilarious performance with a fantastic voice. I adore her. The way she literally rolls up her sleeves during Il Muto to show the Phantom who's the boss is maybe my favourite detail!

Direction-wise, the show does have some clever little moments.

I especially like the bit with the Phantom composing his big opera after The Music of the Night. It's made clear the loud music plays in his head – so no one needs to wonder why his organ playing doesn't wake Christine up but the music box does. Another favourite moment is the Il Muto ballet, with the dancers stumbling onstage one by one, throwing their socks and dressing gowns into the wings as they rush to take their places.

I also enjoy the three operas-within-musical included in the show. They're especially fun to watch when you remember you're watching a musical production by Finnish National Opera. The Opera pokes a little fun at itself during the opera parodies.

Don Juan Triumphant, the Phantom's big work that's performed near the end of the show, amused me the most. The scene's deliberately modern visuals brought back childhood memories of the times my mom took me to see dance and opera at the National Opera. Little Siiri felt as confused by the productions we saw back then as the characters in the musical feel about Phantom's radical new piece.

Watching Finnish National Opera's production of The Phantom of the Opera, I felt happy and entertained. The show is nice and easy to watch, with some strikingly gorgeous visuals and beautiful music. But thinking the production over, there is not too much below the surface to really interest me.

It's a fine show to see once or twice, but I doubt it's anything to remember. I've another ticket in my pocket, but honestly, I'm already looking forward to seeing the Estonian production again instead.

Photos by Stefan Bremer.
Another review in English: I Must Give You My Thoughts

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