Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. Millions have seen it, making it one of the most successful musicals ever. I'm not a big fan of musicals, but The Phantom of the Opera I do like. Mostly due to the fantastic stage production, with it's incredible special effects and design. And the music, of course, which, compared to other musicals, relies a lot on opera and orchestral grandeur. So I have really been looking forward to the film version. And finally, after many, many years, here it is.
Some alterations have been made to the actual plot - there's now a sword fight between the Phantom and Raoul, and the chandelier crash has been moved from the end of the first act, to the end of the second. I can accept the addition of the action sequence, but why place the chandelier crash at the end of the musical? It used to serve as a great, dramatic ending to the first act. Oh, well...
Sony Classical has released two different soundtracks with music from the film. One single disc edition, with highlights. It includes pretty much all of the famous pieces. There's also an "Extended Edition" release, which this review focuses on. This 2 CD version also includes some of Lloyd Webber's newly composed underscore for the film, as well as some additional songs and cues not included on the single disc edition.
It's hard not to compare the voices of the leading actors with other, earlier Phantom cast members. Michael Crawford is of course the most famous, and most popular, Phantom to date, with a very good voice. And here in Sweden we had a Phantom sung by the wonderful, and for this role internationally praised, Mikael Samuelson. Two very gifted singers. The movie version stars actor Gerard Butler as the Phantom. And let's be honest here - Gerard Butler isn't a very good singer. The Phantom's voice should be strong, but also tender. The Phantom is a man who is able to spellbind Christine with his voice, but he's also a pitiful, tormented character. But Butler's voice has none of those required qualities. He mostly screams, with a Scottish accent, when trying to sound powerful and more or less whispers when trying to be tender. He does an OK job in the Phantom's big number, "The Music of the Night", but a better singer would have done a much, much better job, of course. He's also quite young, which doesn't really make sense plotwise. The Phantom has always been - both in Leroux's original novel and in the musical - quite a lot older than Christine, serving somewhat as a father figure. But the reason to go with a younger Phantom is of course to make the movie more appealing to the millions of teenage girls out there.
On to Christine. Emmy Rossum's voice isn't that strong either. Should we really believe that this is a young, gifted soprano, trained to perfection by the Phantom? Young, yes. But not especially gifted. This is especially apparent in the more operatic sequences, and she doesn't handle the high notes that well. All in all, it's sad that they chose looks over talent.
Patrick Wilson's Raoul is better, fortunately. He does a good job with the small amount of material written for the character. It's also interesting to note that Minnie Driver doesn't sing her lines herself - her voice has been replaced by singer Margaret Preece - although she get's to do the spoken dialogue. It's interesting, because the the new end credits song, "Learn to be Lonely", is performed by Minnie Driver, whose performance is well below acceptable. And the song is just en embarrassing attempt to sell some extra CDs and maybe get an Academy Award nomination. It doesn't really fit with the rest of the music at all, with it's pop ballade-sound. But then, the same goes for the title song, "The Phantom of the Opera", which still has, and always has had, that awkward and dated 80's sound - now with an incredibly annoying wailing electric guitar towards the end, as well. Hooray.
The orchestra used for the original London cast recording of the musical was relatively small, compared to the standard big budget movie orchestras we're used to today. The result is, of course, a bigger, fuller and more powerful sound. Which unfortunately is more or less wasted, thanks to the mixing of the music. The original recording was much more crisp, while the movie version is more muffled. Further, the balance between the voices and the orchestra varies throughout the album, with voices drowning the instruments at times, while the opposite is true in other cues. The balance between the different sections in the orchestra is also a problem. The violins are, for example, mixed way too low in the Overture, with the pipe organ taking over the entire stage. Over all, the mixing and the recording aren't exactly bad, but it's annoying at times.
So, is there anything good to be found on this soundtrack? Sure. The duet between Christine and Raoul, "All I Ask of You", is actually quite good. Rossum's voice works when she's not trying to hit those high notes, avoiding the operatic stuff, and the orchestrations are lush and romantic. And "Masquerade" is as colourful and festive as ever. And the new underscore written for "Madame Giry's Tale/The Fairground" is quite interesting and memorable, revolving around a twisted version of one of the major themes. The three minute long "Journey to the Cemetery" is also quite good, with it's low strings, solo violin and grand statement of the main theme.
And the music is good, and I'm sure that a person not already familiar with the musical will love this version. The performances aren't really that horrible. OK, I'm not telling the truth here - some of them really are that horrible. And it's annoying to discover that the result could, and should, have been so much better.