Recording of July 1991: The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera: Original Canadian Cast
Jeffrey Huard, cond.; Andrew Lloyd Webber, music; Charles Hart, lyrics; Richard Stilgoe, additional lyrics
PolyGram 847 689-1 (LP), -2 (CD*). Martin Levan, David Caddick, prods.; Martin Levan, eng. DDA/DDD. TTs: 57:03, 69:45*

The crashing chandelier, the candelabras rising from the lake, the aggressive media blitz and hawking of souvenirs—it's easy to develop disdain for The Phantom of the Opera. Yet, if one can get past the technology and the hype, Phantom is not without its musical rewards, and, as a theatrical experience, it does work. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the production at Toronto's beautifully restored Pantages Theater, where the number of performances has recently passed the 500 mark, and they're still packing them in at a top price of $75.

This production is the basis of the present recording, the first Canadian cast album of a major Broadway/West End hit. (Phantom did not have a Broadway cast recording, reportedly because Andrew Lloyd Webber was piqued by Actors' Equity's attempt to block the appearance of Sarah Brightman, his now-estranged wife.) Far from being strictly for local consumption, the Canadian cast recording of Phantom betters the London cast in many ways, and listening to it may even change some Phantomphobes into Phantomphiles. Of course, it's a record of highlights, so those who want the (almost) entire score will have to turn to the London cast, but the selection is a generous one, and the overall impact is actually improved by the omission of material that merely recycles music introduced earlier in the show. Also, some of the lyrics have been revamped since 1986, resulting in a better match between words and music.

Colm Wilkinson was Lloyd Webber's original choice to play the Phantom in London (he was unable to do it because of a prior commitment to Les Miz); here, he gives an appropriately larger-than-life portrayal that is sure to please his many phans—sorry, fans. Some may still prefer the supreme pathos of Michael Crawford, but Wilkinson, with a very different sort of voice, is in his way just as brilliant. Only the most devout fans of Sarah Brightman will prefer her Christine to that of Rebecca Caine. Canadian-born Caine was the original Cossette in Les Miz and replaced Brightman in the London Phantom. She has a voice of great natural beauty, evenly produced from top to bottom (Brightman has a distinctive sound that I find quite attractive, but the different "gears" in the voice are too obvious), and she sings with the same kind of emotional involvement that distinguished her Cossette (footnote 1).

Byron Nease does well as Raoul, but I must admit I like the London cast's Steve Barton even more. There are strong performances from Gregory Cross and Paul Massell as the opera managers, and Lise Gué;rin provides an amusing caricature of a diva. For reasons of cost and convenience, the recording was made with an initial "laying down" of the orchestral tracks, the singers making their contributions later with the aid of a synchronized video of the conductor. This arrangement works quite well in numbers with a strict rhythmic structure, but with music that's more free-flowing, where in a live performance the conductor would at times be following the singers, there is, inevitably, some sense of inhibited spontaneity. This is the case with "All I Ask of You," but "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again," which must be extremely difficult to sing with "canned" accompaniment, shows hardly a trace of a problem.

Although the sound doesn't set new audiophile standards (massed strings are a bit screechy), it does avoid the excessive sibilance that marred the London version, and is generally cleaner and more open. And yes, you read it right; it's available on vinyl (which, apart from a slight bass rolloff, sounds very much like the polycarbonate).

The word from PolyGram Canada is that there are no immediate plans to release this recording in the US, so for the time being it's available only as an import. It's well worth seeking out. Better yet, come up to Toronto, see Phantom at the Pantages, buy the record here, and save yourself the import markup.—Robert Deutsch

Footnote 1: In the spring of 1991, Caine, apparently trying for the "And Now For Something Completely Different" award, is going on a leave of absence from Phantom to sing the role of Lulu in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Alban Berg's opera. I questioned her about this after a recent performance of Phantom; she told me that Lulu, while presenting a great musical and dramatic challenge, is actually easier to sing than Christine, because it stays in a consistently high tessitura, whereas Christine has some very high and some very low passages.