Unmasking The Phantom of the Opera

There was a massive stir among the circles of theatre aficionados when after seven long years of waiting, The Phantom of the Opera announced its return to Manila as part of its world tour. The show is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated pieces of theatre in history, attracting hundreds of thousands of fans since it was first performed in London’s West End in October 1986. Positive reviews and accolades from all prestigious corners of the business have placed the Phantom on a high pedestal of artistic creations. It is successful in every sense of the term, but what makes the show vastly special can only be comprehensible to those who actually watched it live. I hear every respectable theatre legend rave about their experience when first seeing the Phantom. And after watching the show the other day, I can now finally add my voice in the chorus of people shouting ‘Brava!

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Gaston Leroux’s Timless Tale

Much of the success of the Phantom is attributed to Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, the genius composer who is also behind equally praised works such as Cats, Evita, and Jesus Christ Superstar. Webber rightfully deserves all the recognition because of the amazing score he created. But it is important to note that the soul still lies in the classic novel by French author Gaston Leroux, upon which the show is based.

Just days after I booked my ticket for the show, I knew I had to read Leroux’s book in order to fully immerse into the narrative. Originally entitled as Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, the book recounts the sinister events that occurred at the opulent Palais Garnier (Opéra Populaire) in Paris. The novel is a fine literary work although I consider it far from the classic appeal of novels from writers like Victor Hugo or Alexander Dumas. What I wholly compliment about the story is the blurred line it renders between myth and reality. Leroux was a journalist so it was easy for him to make accounts about the Opera Ghost sound real, regardless of whether they actually are or not. He bombarded the novel with different articles about the rumoured ghost inside the opera house and the infamous tragedy involving a fallen chandelier in 1896 that left one construction worker dead.

Leroux’s play of fact and fiction is impressive, but the true star is the humanity of it. At the centre of the story is a deformed musical genius who called the underground of Palais Garnier his home. He fell in love with a young Swedish opera singer who simply cannot reciprocate the affection. A viscount completes the love triangle and saves the story’s damsel-in-distress from the snares of mad obsession. The story appears plain and simple but there are volumes of drama in between. The complex portrayal of human longing for love is what makes Leroux’s famous work worthy of a theatrical treatment.

It is not difficult for someone who has read the original material to point out the critical differences of the musical show from the novel. There are a considerable number of elements that got lost in translation. One must treat each material as a separate artistic creation so as not to have a feeling of dissatisfaction; both the book and the stage play are great anyway. However, what the musical managed to accomplish is to maintain the moral of the Phantom’s situation.

I was confident I will not have to shed a tear while watching the Phantom. After reading the novel, watching the 2004 film adaptation by Joel Schumacher, and seeing the recorded 25th Anniversary production at the Royal Albert Hall, I thought the material is too familiar for me to require a box of Kleenex. But like everyone else in the audience, I lost it at the ending and responded in the only possible human way: I wept. I had to slowly draw my handkerchief and wipe the tears that were quickly drenching my face. Aristotle would have been so proud of me for reaching the pinnacle of cathartic experience.

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Great artistic creations make us ask great questions. In the case of the Phantom, I left the theatre asking myself how someone regarded as a monster can be capable of so much love. Eric, who earned himself the epithet Opera Ghost, committed horrendous things just to secure the affection of Christine Daaé. He is the Quasimodo of the show, except more aggressive and obsessed. Eric’s grand gestures are not the ones that create the most impact for me because even cheap romantic films can serve that element. What moved me to tears is the development of Eric from being the feared beast of the opera house to becoming the most selfless character in theatre and literature. A particular scene in the two-hour show displays the culmination of this development.

When the Phantom asked Christine to settle the romantic strife surrounding the two of them by choosing whom to love between him and Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, the eventualities that ensued catapulted audience towards one of the most selfless acts in the history of romantic love. Christine chose Eric, despite his horrid appearance, showering him with kisses and tight hugs. Instead of rejoicing, Eric threw a strange fit as if the outcome did not please him by any means. He then freed Raoul, whom he trapped by a rope, and ordered them to leave his chamber and never to speak about him again. Eric let go of Christine because he saw pity from her and not love. This scene will forever be buried in my head, hoping that one day I could be as courageous as Eric to discern love only when there actually is.

The Phantom of the Opera challenges our preconceived notions of good and evil, romantic love, and beauty. It urges people to abandon the promises of external appearance and make sense of the deeper meaning of human affection. With a strength that can only be regarded as aesthetic dignity, it is not a surprise the show has been running for more than three decades. Somewhere between the two-hour production, Eric made the audience feel that his ordeal is somehow part of our own, making the show a universal piece of theatre in more ways than one.

Theatrical Introspection

Webber’s musical is a prepossessing maiden who does not need to speak in order to impress. The spectacle of the production design is itself a showstopper, with bright colours bursting in every scene. All the events in the story take place at the Palais Garnier in Paris, an opera house known for its luxurious architecture. The stage at Solaire’s The Theatre was transformed into a talented mimicry of Palais Garnier’s stage, gilded with stunning gargoyles and statues. For the whole time, it felt like I was sitting inside a high-end 19th Century Parisian theatre. The full grandeur of the opera house is displayed in the production number Masquerade/Why So Silent, the opening song of Act II. It features the monumental stairway at Palais Garnier and flamboyant costumes designed by Tony Award-winning designer Maria Björnson.

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Another remarkable aspect of the show is the creation of a theatre within a theatre and a show within a show. Phantom is like a theatrical introspection which gives the audience access to all the happenings at the opera house. It is as if the audience is part of the story, serving as plain spectators during opera performances and exclusive insiders when the point of view of the show turns backstage.

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World-Class Performers

The Manila staging is blessed to have a gifted ensemble of performers, whose talents achieve stellar proportions. I can only say the best things about the actors of the 2019 production, but similar to all the other shows I watched, I have my favourites.

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Beverley Chiat (Carlotta Giudicelli) is an amazing prima donna. When I first saw the cast announcement, I was sceptical about having the role of Carlotta played by a mature woman. In the other productions I saw, the character is played by someone contemporary to Christine Daaé (i.e. Wendy Ferguson, Minnie Driver). Chiat is a great achievement because she destroyed my doubts with a flawless performance. Her age served her well and gave her an apt sense of seniority for being the diva of the opera house. Chiat became an image of a woman full of experience who is not willing to do business with ‘amateurs!

Matt Leisy (Raoul Vicomte de Chagny) also makes it to the cut of the finest performers of the show. I was sitting just three rows away from the stage so I saw how well Leisy portrayed the role, with on-point facial expressions and gestures. His voice can give any critic a run for his money. Leisy has a gentle voice fitting for a hero of a fairytale, but not too tender to lose a battle.

Meghan Picerno and Clara Verdier alternately play the role of Christine Daaé. Verdier did the part in the performance I watched, and the girl owned it! Her Christine is youthful and innocent, made better by her cherubic voice. Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again is one of my favourite songs from the show and I can’t help but get misty-eyed when Verdier sang it for me. I managed to meet her after the performance and she has to be the nicest theatre actor I’ve met.

How can I even begin to describe the genius of Jonathan Roxmouth as the Phantom? If The Phantom of the Opera is God’s gift to musical theatre, according to The Times UK, Roxmouth is a blessing from heaven to the performing arts. I believe his talent can only be explained through exaggeration. The titular role is obviously the hardest part to play because of its multi-layered personality. Roxmouth did not make playing the Phantom looks easy, and that’s the charm of it. I saw, from where I was sitting, the struggles of the character. I witnessed Roxmouth’s nerves protrude in his neck when the character is furious, and I also saw him discreetly wipe tears when the scene gets emotional. So much of the revelations of the show depends on him as the lead actor. I understood the subliminal sufferings of Erik only because of Roxmouth’s impeccable portrayal. All the audience who left the theatre with a better understanding of beauty and love owe it to Roxmouth. He made me cry for the best reasons.

Beneath the Mask

Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the music for The Phantom of the Opera with Sarah Brightman, his former lover, as the major inspiration. Brightman went on to originate the role of Christine in London’s West End 32 years ago. Like Erik, Webber is driven by love in creating musical chef-d’oeuvre, a concept that makes the show even more special. Love is at the core of the show. And love is also what’s beneath the Phantom’s mask. Unfortunately, the cruel world can only see deformity in him.

My heart was left like a shattered chandelier after the final scene. Erik was left in his chamber alone with his music box, and he sang: ‘Masquerade… Paper faces on parade… Masquerade… Hide your face so the world will never find you…’ He then turned to see Christine watching her. Erik, without wearing his mask, finally made a brave confession: ‘Christine I love you’ But Christine only came back to return the ring he gave to her. And just like that, we are confronted by the reality that we cannot make people love us. Erik closes the act with a final lament:

‘You alone can make my song take flight,

It’s over now, the Music of the Night.’

But for us who were touched by Erik’s love, his story is far from over. I am sure theatre Phans will continue to join the Opera Ghost in composing the Music of the Night for more years to come.

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