Wednesday, September 14, 2005

le phantom de l'opera

Well, my wife and I finally saw the "Phantom of the Opera" on DVD, and I have to say that, despite my initial concerns when I saw it was a Joel Schumacher film, I was impressed.

"Phantom" is arguably one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's finest musicals, along with "Jesus Christ Superstar." It tells the story of an impressionable chorus girl named Christine Daae who receives musical instruction from an unseen Angel of Music who turns out to be a brilliant but dangerous man who lives inside the Opera Populaire, and whose presence and actions have given birth to the legends of a ghost who haunts the opera. Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, the musical is a neat blend of the Faust legend with the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast.

I read Leroux's novel in September 1992, when I was living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and saw the musical at Pantages Theater in Toronto in 1994 with my family. Lloyd Webber made some drastic changes to the story (as is to be expected), moving a few scenes around, eliminating Raoul's older brother, and combining the character of the Persian detective with Madame Giry, who manages the chorus girls.

Still, even though Lloyd Webber eliminated Leroux's twists and turns as Raoul descends into the opera house to find Christine, he made one hell of a musical. Despite my initial disappointment at the changes in the story, the soundtrack became one of my favorites pretty quickly, enough that my wife knew the soundtrack long before she ever saw the musical performed. (Which would be the other night, incidentally, on DVD.)

I'm usually leery of watching musicals put on film. The two media don't blend well, in my opinion; you can suspend your disbelief in Jean Valjean's singing his innermost thoughts on stage, but it's kind of hard when you see him do it on screen. One of film's great strengths is its illusion of realism, just as the stage excels at provoking the imagination.

Well, Schumacher got around that problem somewhat by adding a few bits of dialogue, such as when the old manager of the opera house introduces Carlotta to the new owners of the opera house, or other character-building bits that come out in snippets of dialogue. A few of the shorter exchanges that in the libretto are done to music, like when Christine begs Raoul not to make her play the bait in a mousetrap they're setting for the Phantom, Schumacher instead had delivered as dialogue. Unfortunately, I thought these came off as kind of weak, since the words have a lyrical rhythm to them that remained, so they sounded like lyrics being recited rather than lines delivered.

That was pretty minor, though. The casting was excellent, and the woman who played Christine absolutely blew the rest of the cast away, with the two fortunate exceptions of the actors playing Raoul and the Phantom. Schumacher also moved a few scenes around -- such as Christine's visit to her father's grave, which in the movie comes right after the Phantom delivers his opera score during the Masquerade, and not right before the performance of the opera -- and did it in such a way that I felt it actually enhanced the flow of the story.

The biggest change of all, though, was the falling chandelier. In Leroux's novel, the Phantom drops it about halfway through the book, a lead that Lloyd Webber followed, since it corresponds with the end of the first act. Schumacher followed the lead of the other cinematic adaptations of Leroux's novel, though, and moved the chandelier-dropping scene to a more climactic moment, namely, the abduction of Christine.

In other words, everything happens all at once. The Phanton kills the tenor Piangi and takes his place on stage, where no one in their right mind would expect him to be. Christine unmasks him at the end of a very racy "Past the Point of No Return," and he drops the chandelier and makes his escape as the theater catches fire and Raoul chases. It's much more intense this way, and it makes Firmin's lament "We're ruined, André, ruined!" less comical than it's always seemed to me in the musical.

The woman who played Christine in the movie was absolutely tremendous. It's not just the vocals, which are understandably a challenge for any soprano, it's her acting too. She absolutely nailed Christine's characterization dead-on, with the wavering between Raoul and the Phantom, and the powerful draw she feels for each man.

Excellent movie, really. I suppose we shall have to buy a copy at some point.

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