Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Tragic Phantom

I really like this Antonio Banderas version. Who doesn't like a Phantom with a Spanish accent?

The original. Who can knock it?

I thought about including a Gerard Butler version, but it made my ears bleed.

I was twelve when I first read Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. I’ve been thinking a lot about this story lately, and I decided to read it again. My impression of it remains the same. For me, the Phantom was always the misunderstood hero of the story. Born deformed, shunned by society, captured by a traveling circus to be a freak show performer: the Phantom had an unforgivable childhood. When he grows older, he becomes a contractor for an opera house in France. There, he secretly builds himself a home in the foundations of the structure, where he lives for many lonely years.

One day, a beautiful chorus girl named Christine comes to work at the opera house. The Phantom is immediately smitten. He sees what no one else does, an incredible talent in the rough. So he begins to sneak to Christine’s dressing room under the guise of the “Angel of Music,” a completely fictitious ghostly apparition, so that he can teach her to sing. Christine, a saintly, beautiful twit, accepts this charade for two reasons. First, before he died, her father told her the story of the “Angel of Music,” a fantastical creature who teaches little girls how to sing; and since Christine’s the sort of person who still believes in fairytales, she’s convinced that she is literally being taught how to sing by this “Angel.” Secondly, Christine finds herself attracted to the Phantom and his musical genius.

For a time, the tutelage of Christine comes along grandly. Then, on the night of the old manager’s retirement, Christine performs and surprises everyone with her newly honed talent. Raoul , a childhood friend of Christine’s, sees her perform, and his affections are renewed.

Naturally and understandably, the Phantom becomes jealous and angry with this new competition. Not so understandably, he decides to abduct Christine, and he takes her to his underground home. Once there, she pulls the mask from his face, and she sees his true appearance. He is heartbroken and terrified that she will leave. He tries to keep her, but after two weeks, he realizes he can’t cage her. So the he lets her go with the promise she will wear his ring.

Once released, Christine goes to Raoul and they decide to run away together. However, Christine feels sorry for the Phantom, and she decides she will sing for him once more. The Phantom overhears their plans, and he is furious. He captures Raoul and another character called the Persian, and he locks them up. When Christine comes to the Phantom, he threatens to destroy the opera house if she does not agree to marry him. In order to save everyone, Christine makes the promise; then she kisses the Phantom. This gesture of kindness overwhelms him. He admits he has never been kissed before, not even by his own mother. He is ultimately softened. The Phantom then releases Christine and Raoul, and the story ends with the Phantom dying alone.

I imagine most people haven’t read this version of the story, which reads more like a less tragic version of The Hunchback or even Frankenstein. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to recognize the differences between this and the recent stage and film versions. In the novel, the Phantom is a dynamic character: he’s an incredibly dark creature, but he secures redemption by choosing to sacrifice his own happiness for the sake of another. Perhaps that is why I am so deeply disappointed with the musical. Its Phantom is a seducer, and he never learns his lesson. So while the music is beautiful, I think Gollum just about sums up my feelings on the Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation: “Stupid fat hobbit. You ruins it!”