The decision of the Finnish National Opera to produce The Phantom of the Opera turned out to be an opinion-divider. Musicals are a genre popular with the public at large, but many still do not consider them a serious art form. Finnish theatres perform musicals as a matter of course – but no one in Finland had dared tackle Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megahit Phantom until now.
Lloyd Webber is a versatile professional whose musicals actually occupy quite different genres from one another. Cats, for instance, could equally well be construed as a ballet, since dance plays a vital role in it. Phantom, on the other hand, requires its performers to have serious opera chops, which is why it suits the FNO down to the ground. Certainly “Music of the Night” is every bit as much an aria as “Vissi d’arte” – both are episodes in a continuum of musical drama. Although many listeners will be familiar with the hit songs from Phantom, it may come as a surprise that much of its other music is in fact far more challenging.
Excerpts from three fictitious operas, elegant pastiches by Lloyd Webber himself, play an important role in the narrative. Hannibal in particular was impressive, not least because of the brilliant performance given by the chorus. Don Juan Triumphant, written by the Phantom, is full-blown avant-garde (kudos to the set designer!). The 1980s sound in the Phantom theme brings a wry smile to the face, but since there is a pre-recorded background to it, this is something over which the production team had no control. Perhaps it is just as well to be reminded of when this work was written.
Every single performance of Phantom was sold out before the premiere. Now that we have seen the premiere, we may calmly observe that the 70,000 people who bought those tickets are not wrong. The production is of dazzling quality and brought to life with the greatest professionalism and respect down to the last detail. The FNO is one of the very few companies worldwide to have been given permission to create an original production, as opposed to an exact replica of the original.
While in some productions of Phantom I have sensed a somewhat condescending and parodic attitude to opera as a genre, at the FNO opera is of course treated with respect. Super-talented coloratura soprano Hanna-Leena Haapamäki was brilliant in her virtuoso performance as Carlotta, the opera diva, without any excess of parody. Sofie Asplund gave a fine performance as Christine, her voice having just the right youthful classical tone to it. Tero Harjuniemi was secure and warm as Raoul.
The title role was taken by Ville Rusanen, one of the FNO’s own baritones. I was pleased with this casting choice in advance, having already witnessed him demonstrate his wide vocal range and compelling stage presence (for instance as Kimmo in Aulis Sallinen’s opera Kullervo). The role of the Phantom calls for no less. The Phantom is a complex, chameleon-like character with many facets: demon, angel, composer, and so on. Rusanen brought all these facets to life with his voice, especially the carnal side of the character. His Phantom was a strong and physical young man, not a mystical spirit.
Director Tiina Puumalainen has done well. The characters are believable, and the crowd scenes created in collaboration with choreographer Osku Heiskanen flow smoothly. The only scene that left something to be desired was the cemetery scene: initially stiff, then clumsy.
Set designer Teppo Järvinen and costume designer Marjaana Mutanen have also worked wonders. Everything seemed fresh yet captured a 19th-century mood to perfection, for instance through the use of candles. Lots of them. In the Phantom-composer’s cave I thought I detected a nod to Eila Hiltunen’s Sibelius Monument – perhaps a discreet homage to another master composer? The stylish colour scheme of the Masquerade also merits a thumbs-up.
I am utterly pleased that the FNO has thrown everything it possibly can at this production – flamboyantly but not flauntingly, showing a great respect for the work. A big investment that has paid off big time.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Stefan Bremer