Friday, March 07, 2008

Phantom of the Opera: Romance and Reality

If you like the Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera, you'll love the movie. If you haven't seen either, you may ask, why should a reasonable person be interested in phantoms? Well, unreason and superstition deserve contempt, but one can still enjoy a good mystery. It is after all a triumph of man's reasonable mind when a seemingly supernatural mystery is explained.

That is one of the points where the movie version of Phantom is superior to the theatrical production, which introduces supernatural innuendo into Gaston Leroux' novel. The movie, however, offers a realistic explanation for every trick of the Phantom (Gerard Butler). In the movie, there is obviously no magic involved when the Phantom steps out of the mirror or brings down the chandelier. When the Phantom makes Carlotta (Minnie Driver), the diva, lose her voice, the Phantom is seen replacing her mouth spray with a croak concoction. The Phantom will not just simply evaporate or vanish; there will be a trap door visible. You won't be treated to a piano playing by itself, entrancing the cast of the Phantom’s opera.

However, director Joel Schumacher could not resist including one piece of romantic optical effects magic. When the Phantom leads Christine (Emmy Rossum) from her wardrobe to his lair beyond the underground lake, candelabras appear magically out of the walls and water. Yet, it is possible that Christine is only dreaming or hallucinating. When Meg Giry (Jennifer Ellison) enters the secret passage a little later, there are no candelabras there.

The story not even lacks a benign moral message: The beauty or ugliness that really counts is not in a person's face but in the soul. Christine: "This haunted face holds no horror for me now... It's in your soul that the true distortion lies..."

What is more, the movie is a remarkable feat of artistic integration. It is art in the perfect sense: It permits you to sense the highest, the greatest, and the best possible to man on earth. It is hard not to be moved to tears by the sheer beauty of the combination of music and pictures. Just listening to the CD has nowhere near the same effect, except if you allow the music to remind you of the movie's mood, pictures, and story. Even the Broadway production cannot offer that level of pure "Elysian joy," to paraphrase the musical's song "Masquerade."

Of course, in the age of computer graphics, the set design of the best theater must pale beside what views and vistas are possible in a movie. The mid-song transformation in "Think of Me" from Christine's impromptu audition to a sweeping view of her performance, resplendent in her costume, in front of a lavish, packed opera auditorium, is pure movie magic, impossible to be equaled by its live counterpart.

Esthetically, this scene is a perfect reduction to essentials. Christine does the work required to get the job; cut to the result, her reward, the achievement she has always dreamed of. The inessentials, like her changing into her new costume, are left out.

Still, the visitations of the visual effects department are decidedly a mixed blessing. The score has been changed so that the chandelier does no longer fall as a cliffhanger before the intermission (no such thing in the movies) but near the climactic end. The Opera House no longer being needed for the story, the falling chandelier, bristling with candles, hits the gas limelights, resulting in a towering inferno engulfing the whole building.

I am not sure whether the added drama of the fire enhances the chase through the catacombs, sparks raining down here, there, and everywhere, enough to excuse the logical problems it creates in the story. Like, if the chandelier has been at the center of such an inferno, how comes that it can be sold at auction decades later, even in pieces?

Likewise, Raoul (Patrick Wilson), Christine’s love interest, gets the chance to dramatically duel the Phantom in the cemetery scene. When Raoul finally has the disarmed Phantom at his mercy, ready for a coup de grace, Christine begs him not to kill his adversary. They leave the Phantom lying there and ride away. The next thing Raoul does is scheming how to ensnare and arrest the Phantom. Could neither of our two heroes think of marching the Phantom to the nearest police station at sword point after he had lost the duel?

But these are inessentials. There is only one capital-D Drawback to the movie. No multiplex can equal the operatic ambiance of a historic Broadway theater like the Majestic, built in 1903. The unique sales proposition of the theatrical production is the play's being set in an opera house. The theater auditorium becomes the auditorium of the Opera House. The musical audience is right in the center of things, part of the action, down to the smell of grease paint.

You will imagine that you have been spirited more than a century back in time, attending a performance at the Garnier Opera House in Paris, where the Phantom is about to strike; spirited to a romantic Paris that never existed in this way and surely does not exist today. An experience that renders any visit to today's real-life Paris and the Opera House necessarily anticlimactic. You snap a photo of the rococo Opera House, kitschy in good light, after having had to dodge countless subcompact cars out to hit you.

Naturally, this experience is completely lost in even the most beautiful multiplex. Plus, you likely won't get to buy one of those cute souvenir programs, either. To claim all the benefits this possibly most romantic story ever told has to offer, one has to see both the theatrical production, preferably in a historic theater, and the movie.

Originally published on January 28, 2005, on The Atlasphere.

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