Friday, January 2, 2009

phantom-y goodness

“There’s no danger in a name . . .” --Raoul
“A storm’s coming. We should go below.” --Christine

Phantom of the Opera is one of the few things I can really say I am an expert in. I read the book for the first time when I was 16, and now own three English translations, the original French, and some children’s adaptations, as well as Susan Kay’s Phantom. (Someday I’ll act on my impulse to write the ultimate English translation.) I’ve seen the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical 5 times, twice in Albuquerque, twice in London (Her Majesty’s Theatre where it has played since 1986), and once in Denver. I went to the Albuquerque premiere of the Joel Schumacher film and have all the commercially available cast albums (including the Canadian, Mexican and Original London casts). In fact, the Ethan Freeman/Claire Moore CD is the first time I ever heard of John Barrowman (who played, and in my opinion still plays, the best Raoul). I’ve visited the Paris Opera House and the Bois de Boulogne, as well as the beach in Perros-Guirec in Brittany where Raoul and Christine met as children, and Opera architect Garnier’s grave in the Cimitère Montparnasse. I’ve seen nine of the film/mini-series versions (and own seven of them). Perhaps most importantly, I’ve taught the book to a classroom of college freshmen in a University Honors program (which was an extremely rewarding experience, one which I hope to repeat someday).

Those are my credentials, if you want to call them that. The truth is, I’m just a very obsessed fan girl with an interest in literature, history, and the Gothic and a few degrees to back it up. Thus, I was over the moon when I found out that Big Finish—who has done some really great Doctor Who audio plays—had done an audio version of the classic novel which went back to the roots. It took me quite a while to actually listen to it, but from two episodes on BBC7, I was hooked. I bought it, and I’ve revelled in the production ever since. It’s taken me some time to write the review, however, because I’ve just got so much to say.

Andrew Lloyd Webber has gone on record as saying that the original novel, by lawyer-turned-reporter-turned novelist Gaston Leroux, is pretty amateur stuff. I think this is often a misconception that people have, probably because the book fits into several genres. However, director and adapter Barnaby Edwards has seized on the book’s strengths and almost uniformly used them to structure his audio adaptation. With so many film (and musical and play) adaptations, different directors have used different approaches in order to pick and choose what elements of the original they want to use. Edwards is very true to the original book, but not slavishly so—that’s why I was so electrified when I first heard it on BBC7. Someone who understands how to use the novel’s full dramatic potential! It is, of course, a story that’s very suited for radio, with its many musical references and its phantasmagorical scenery, much better pictured in the imagination than on stage or screen (usually).

One of the funnest things about the book is that it’s structured in a very leading way, which draws you in immediately to the mystery. There are several narratives going on at once, and you come in at the story from so many angles. The ALW musical manages this to an extent; you don’t actually meet the Phantom until halfway into the first act. The Big Finish version accomplishes this by giving us a narrator. Not Leroux, not the Persian, but, interestingly, Madame Giry. I wasn’t sure how well this would work, but of course Anna Massey is perfect for the role, and Edwards has written his Madame Giry as starchy and wry, with the appropriate warmth. She makes an ideal narrator because she is opinionated and not afraid to confuse the reader slightly in order to get a lot of exposition out of the way. “The skeleton—I knew that would get your attention.” Like the narrator of the original novel, she puts a great deal of emphasis on the veracity of the so-called story.

Immediately the adaptation sweeps unnecessary characters like La Sorelli and Jammes away in light of combining them with La Carlotta and Meg Giry so we can get the exposition out of the way and get into the story! Carlotta and the managers are traditionally the comic figures, and I’m delighted with Carlotta’s dry sense of humor: “a breath of absinthe, you mean!” I really like the device they use to get the managers’ back story out: they are so vain, they demand to read the article in the newspaper about their takeover of the opera house again. “It won’t do to be in debt to a ghost!” “Are we living in the nineteenth century?!” This humor extends to Raoul’s older brother Philippe, who most adaptations ignore, who pokes fun at Raoul’s sudden devotion to Christine (a point of contention among phans for ages). Even bit characters like the stableman give us a chuckle: “Unless you know of another white horse named César in the stables!”
Part one ends with a great cliffhanger set in the Perros graveyard, where the Phantom plays “The Resurrection of Lazarus” waltz for a perturbed Christine and Raoul. It might be a good time to mention the music, arranged and composed by Tim Sutton (based around the score of Faust and a few other pieces specifically mentioned in the book). I thought the name looked familiar, and upon inspecting my liner notes for Doctor Who and the Pirates, I realized that Tim Sutton sang and played several parts (and Helen Goldwyn, Christine, coincidentally played the “tragic student Sally”—no wonder she, too, sounded familiar!). The main theme shares a similar sound of nervous strings to “Point of No Return” in the ALW musical. Overall I found the score very satisfying.

Madame Giry displays more of her dry wit over the “concertina’d concierge” who replaced her, and then returns to Raoul’s fate in Perros—“I bet you thought I forgot about him.” I love that she acknowledges that he was a naval officer off to the North Pole, but that he “fainted.” I should mention that I think casting James D’Arcy as Raoul was an inspired choice. He’s played villains and heroes before, so I think he brings an appropriate measure of both to Raoul. Raoul has a bad reputation among phans, and I admit in the beginning I was a Raoul-hater. D’Arcy highlights Raoul’s jealousy and sheer frustration at Christine’s unfathomable behavior, which is a darker aspect to his character often overlooked. He also has all the heroic attributes you come to expect from the dashing young nobleman (though he sounds an awful lot like Patrick Wilson when shouting “he is not your father!”).

One character the adaptation does not ignore is Mamma Valerius, who I suppose is necessary to the mystery as originally written. Raoul pursues the Phantom’s trail—“since when did an angel drive a carriage?”—to the masked ball. Since Barnaby Edwards’ otherwise exhaustive listing of Phantom adaptations misses the 1990 Hirschfield stage musical starring David Staller, I expect he does not realize that both it and this version use Saëns-Sans’ “Danse Macabre” in the masked ball scene (well-known to viewers of Jonathan Creek). The confrontations and disguises during the scenes are also similar, with the managers matching the masked Phantom tit-for-tat in some witty exchanges: “I thought the Red Death brought plague, not revelations!”

It took two hearings to appreciate Helen Goldwyn as Sally in Doctor Who and the Pirates, but I think she does a solid job with Christine. Christine usually comes off as a romantic fruit loop (Joel Schumacher would only cast a very young actress in order to make the character’s naiveté believable). The book gives her scenes of strange power and mastery over the male characters, and in this adaptation, she doesn’t let Raoul push her around. “One day, you will beg my pardon. I answer to only one man, my husband. Well, I haven’t got a husband. I shall never marry.” The scenes on the rooftop with Apollo’s Lyre move between the witty and the intense. “I know he’s a monster, but his heart is so great.” “Are you sure this is pity and not love?” Christine describes the Opéra as the third-tallest building in Paris, and Raoul remarks that the Hôtel des Invalides “glints in the sun like a mirror.” This is a good transition into Christine recounting her descent into the lair with her angel of music. There is another superb cliffhanger when Christine, during Othello, removes the Phantom’s mask.

I believe the entire cast and crew have a conspiracy against the name “Erik,” which is the Phantom’s real name, because Madame Giry mentions it and James D’Arcy can’t contain his mirth over it. Personally I’ve never had a problem with it, it yields one of the most beautiful lines of the book: “Neither am I a ghost. I am a man, Christine. My name, if you must have it, is Erik.” Peter Guinness is an interesting and very capable choice as the titular character. Though Meg describes the ghost’s voice as “soft and gentle,” it’s very difficult to achieve the super-human quality of Erik in the book with real people. Clearly Guinness’ voice is distinctive and serves for the more wraith-like qualities Erik must possess, and Matthew Hargreave, who serves as Erik’s singing voice, creates a rich, operatic tone. Even in the ALW musical, you find tenors and baritones both able to sing the role, a superlative few adept at both the whispery, sweet quality and the resonant and wrathful.

This audio play is adapting the book, and from that perspective it’s not out to emphasize the phan-girlish qualities. Erik is to be pitied, which Guinness achieves well during the unmasking, but he is not so overwhelmingly sympathetic as other treatments have made him (Phantom by Susan Kay, for one). While Guinness himself sees the human side of Erik, the other actors, it seems, are less inclined to see him that way. So, in a small way, part of me is disappointed that the scenes that describe Erik’s behavior don’t do more than the book dictates.

What does impress me, however, is the inclusion of the Persian, who is almost always absent from adaptations, and played by Alexander Siddig, no less! Again, great casting, as he doesn’t go overboard with the accent but keeps the character suitably mysterious until Raoul encounters him in part three. The Persian is connected to several of the most Gothic and least rational moments in the book. Raoul’s encounter on the balcony with “the two stars” (which in the book could be a cat, could be a ghost, could be Erik stalking Raoul) are dismissed as the last option, and similarly explained is Erik’s Siren. (The Ratcatcher is disappointingly mundane, and the Shade does not appear at all.) However, I’m really impressed with the aural rendering of the Siren, something that never really made sense to me in the book. Hats off, too, for explaining the Punjab lasso—“I shall be pointing mine [pistol] straight ahead!” announces Raoul. “Things happen here that defy explanation!” is the fate of the hapless managers as the adaptation handles the affair of the safety pin in uproarious detail. The Persian’s account of Erik’s life works well as told to Raoul as they descend through the cellars, and I am glad that the Persian retains his lack of moral judgement: “I do not hate him [Erik].” Part three ends as Raoul and the Persian are attacked by rats. I was expecting the more supernatural tone of the incident in the book, but with wonderful sound production, the more mundane rat-attack is gruesome and frightening!

I love the way Madame Giry looks up Erik’s name for the Persian, Daroga, in the dictionary—“he was a copper!” I am impressed at the way tension is maintained above the surface as the bumbling police inspector, Madame Giry, and the managers attempt to account for Christine’s disappearance, concluding that Raoul has carried her off—“That’s the only explanation I’ve heard all night that makes sense!” Raoul and the Daroga escape from the rats, only to fall into . . . the Torture Chamber! I can’t think of a single adaptation other than the silent film that approaches the Torture Chamber in more than an homage, and I was really excited (I am morbid!) in seeing how it would be handled on audio. I think Raoul and the Daroga could have suffered a bit longer, but overall it was very well-done. “Those gas flames are doing more than illuminate . . .”

The actor who really shines in this, though, is Helen Goldwyn. A lot of pressure is put on Christine here, much more than on the Christine in ALW (who only has herself and Raoul to save), for she has the fate of the entire opera house, Raoul, and the Persian in hand, should she turn the grasshopper. “What if I make no choice?!” she demands of her captor, who she says, has been made “mad” by love. I like the allusion to the rarely-mentioned scissors incident when Erik refuses to release Christine from her bonds because “you may choose to hurt yourself.” Peter Guinness is, of course, no slouch—it’s difficult to make Erik sympathetic in this scene, when he is so intent on harming people, without the aid of singing (as in ALW). “All I have ever wanted is to be loved for myself,” Erik moans. “My mother never kissed me, you know.”

I was a little disappointed with the ending. I guess I have been too spoiled with Susan Kay and ALW, which present Christine’s redeeming kiss and compassion in real-time, instead of relayed back to Raoul through the Daroga and our narrator. It loses some of its immediacy and power that way, but I guess it focuses the story once more on a) Raoul and Christine’s happy ending; and b) the narrator’s insistence on tying up the true story’s loose ends. It has really ceased being Erik’s story and has become the Phantom’s. Madame Giry sums up the story and is sympathetic to a point—she describes Erik’s mother as “stonehearted”—but finds Erik “by nature devious.” To Erik’s heart, which could encompass the world, “only Christine has the key to it.” I do like the warmth in describing who Christine kept her promise to return Erik’s plain gold ring, and the circular nature of bringing us back to the singular skeleton Madame Giry mentioned at the very start.

Phantom of the Opera is an ideal play for adapting for audio, though I do hope Big Finish will consider adapting some others. For new fans, I suggest listening to the story if you are hesitant about the book. Longtime phans will find much to love about this adaptation as well.

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