The Phantom of the Opera is one of those shows that has numerous recordings in various languages, making the task of reviewing each of them in any depth rather difficult. Thus I’ll be focusing my attention on a handful of the English language recordings. The images here allow to you to purchase the recordings from Amazon: just click on the image and you will be directed to a page with further details on each recording.
1. The Original London Recording
This was the recording that introduced the world at large to a show that would become an international sensation. A comprehensive overview of the score and indeed the show as a whole is provided over two discs, providing an immersive listening experience. As the Phantom, Michael Crawford conveys the torture of a human being so damaged that he dwells on the edges of humanity. Vocally, he’s not my favourite Phantom, but his approach to the role from an acting standpoint is compelling. His performances of the songs demand attention. It’s also not easy to dismiss Sarah Brightman in the role that was written for her. While she certainly isn’t the best Christine that has appeared in the show over the quarter century it’s been running, there’s a sweet vulnerability in her performance that certainly suits the role. (Note, however, Ms Brightman, that the correct pronunciation of opera includes no final “r”.) Steve Barton is probably the least controversial of the three leads. His is a fine performance in a thankless role. The supporting cast delivers the goods.
2. The Canadian Cast Recording
The Canadian Cast Recording was the first English language recording to follow the London Cast Recording. A highlights recording that skips a great deal of the bits and pieces in between the songs proper, the main reason for having this recording in your collection would be to have some record of Rebecca Caine’s marvellously acted and sung performance in the show. Although vocally, her voice sounds perhaps a shade too mature for the role, Caine takes the operetta cliché that is the stuff of Christine’s character and moulds it into something more complex. Every Christine that has followed surely owes something to Caine’s performance in the role. As far as Phantoms go, Colm Wilkinson plays into the extremes of the role and this creates a darker, more fractured take on the role. It certainly works in the Phantom’s more powerful moments, but the quieter moments (as in the parts of the generally over-articulated “Music of the Night” or the Phantom’s reprise of “All I Ask of You” near the end of Act I) come across in a manner that is rather contrived. Byron Nease is a blustery peacock of a Raoul and all the less sympathetic for it. The supporting cast members are fine, but perhaps feel a little weighed down by the seriousness of approach that was clearly taken in this production of the show.
3. 1993 Studio Cast Recording
Let’s face it. It’s rare for studio recordings to hold their own against genuine cast recordings, even when – as in this case – some of the performers have played the roles they are singing on stage. On this recording, we have Claire Moore, Sarah Brightman’s alternate in the original cast, singing the role of Christine several years after she played the role on stage. There are two problems here. Firstly, there’s the general maturity of her voice, which is only natural given the passage of time between 1986 and 1993. The second is that Moore doesn’t really nail the arc of the role vocally, climaxing in her first number (“Think of Me”) and never bettering the standard she sets there. That said, her performance of “Think of Me” is outstanding, my personal favourite from a vocal perspective. Barring a suave and charming contribution from John Barrowman as Raoul and a sincere performance from Megan Kelly as Meg, the rest of the recording is basically a wash. Graham Bickley is a bland Phantom, neither mysterious nor virtuosic in a role that requires at least that and more. The big numbers all disappoint in one way or another: the title song is too slow and lacks punch; the balance of “Prima Donna” is all over the place, leaving it to sound like a quartet; and the mix on “Masquerade” is too wet, an echo of the bright, sharp sound it was designed to have, to make any real impact on the listener. If you are looking to buy a single recording of the show, don’t let it be this one. This is one for the completists.
4. The Film Soundtrack
If the 1993 Studio Recording is one for the completists, then so is this one. The movie may be no great shakes, but at least when you’re watching it, you will have the visuals to distract you, for better or worse, from a soundtrack that offers very little by way or general satisfaction and very little in comparison with other recordings of the show. Emmy Rossum delivers a bland reading of Christine, which has less to do with her innate talent than it does with the take on the character in the film, and that is largely to do with Joel Schumacher’s inability to tell the story in any particular style or with any particular vision. Gerard Butler battles valiantly with the score, but it is that conflict that one follows in a listen of the score rather than that which is going on dramatically. Patrick Wilson sounds fine as Raoul, but makes little impression in the bigger scheme of things. (Of course, that is partly to do with the way the character is written, even in the stage version of the show.) The highlight of the recording is Margaret Preece, who sings the role of Carlotta, who is played by Minnie Driver in the film. That sums up the problem with this album: when Carlotta is the highlight of the proceedings, you know that something is amiss.
5. The 25th Anniversary Recording
Between the opening night of The Phantom of the Opera in London and this, the 25th Anniversary concert, things changed. It became en vogue for the Phantoms to become younger and sexier and for the Raouls to become snobbier and snottier. Part of this can be attributed, I think, to the Las Vegas production, in which glamour and shortcuts triumph over sense and depth, and part of it to the premiere of Love Never Dies, in which some of the characters that appear in both shows develop in ways so extreme such that back-dated tweaks were made in the original so that some parts of the sequel make a bit more sense. Those two landmarks in Phantom history also delivered to us the two leads in this 25th anniversary concert: Sierra Boggess (who got her big break playing Christine in the Las Vegas production and then originated the role in Love Never Dies) and Ramin Karimloo (who played Raoul on stage in 2003, Christine’s father in the film adaptation of the show and eventually the Phantom in both The Phantom of the Opera and Love Never Dies). The recording is a live one and, like all live recordings of musical theatre, never completely satisfies. Boggess is a rather shrill Christine, sounding at her best earlier on in the show. By the time we get to “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again”, it’s all interpretation and no technique. The best musical theatre actresses can deliver both. But perhaps what is most distracting about Boggess’s performance is her accent, which falters on some of the vowels and anytime she hits the lateral consonant. Karimloo was more effective vocally in Love Never Dies, but he sounds fine on this recording, if perhaps he veers a little towards blustery genericism now and then. Hadley Fraser gets the dynamics of his relationship with Christine wrong, playing up Raoul’s chauvinism too much when he is with her. Perhaps this is one of the concessions made so that Phantom dovetails more neatly with Love Never Dies, but it doesn’t quite work. Wendy Ferguson as Carlotta delivers an exemplary “Think of Me”, but then checks out vocally when she is in non-diegetic scenes: it seems to me that Carlotta should be acted the other way around if that difference is going to be there. The rest of the cast ranges from delightful (Daisy Maywood as Meg) to appalling (Barry James as Monsieur Firmin, who is barely tolerable). Overall, the album is a third choice, trailing behind both the Original London and Canadian cast recordings. I would rather buy one of those and get this cast on DVD or Blu-Ray if you’re going to get it at all.