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'Opera' splendidly true to its origins

Category: Phantom of the Opera Reviews
Article Date: December 21, 2004 | Publication: Charlotte Observer | Author: LAWRENCE TOPPMAN

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REVIEW: Phantom of the Opera

If you've been seduced by Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage version of "The Phantom of the Opera," you'll fall in love with the gorgeous, splendidly cast film.

If you found that musical an undercharacterized rehash of music by (better) composers of real operas, Joel Schumacher's movie won't change your mind.

And if you know nothing about the "Phantom," currently the longest-running show on Broadway, this unusually faithful recreation will show what the fuss is about. It goes wrong only in its occasional insistence on boorish comedy.

Schumacher and Lloyd Webber share script credit and have decided Gaston Leroux's novel works best onscreen when the action stays at the Paris Opera.

Except for a visit to the cemetery where Christine Daae's father is buried, characters wander about the cavernous theater, honeycombed with secret passages and unseen cellars. This makes the movie feel claustrophobic, but that's the point: For these people, opera is life. Everything comes second to their art, and Christine's burgeoning romance with boyhood chum Raoul threatens that balance and drives the Phantom over the edge of madness.

Except for a few insignificant changes in the lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, the narrative unfolds in the same way as the stage musical. Orphaned chorus girl Christine (Emmy Rossum) leaps to prominence when diva Carlotta (Minnie Driver) has one tantrum too many, and the younger singer replaces her.

Christine's mysterious, unseen teacher approves, but this unnamed Phantom (Gerard Butler) fears the advances of Raoul (Patrick Wilson) will divert her from her path as a star -- and, perhaps, from someday becoming the bride who could overlook his hideous disfigurement. When she returns Raoul's love and spurns the Phantom's controlling influence, he declares war on both of them.

"Phantom" fans have bickered about casting since the movie was discussed more than a decade ago. (The show opened in London in 1986 and has been running in New York since 1988.)

Incomparable Michael Crawford, now 62, seems too old to me to play the Phantom; Antonio Banderas (my choice) might be distractingly famous, as Schumacher cast lesser-known people in other leads. Butler knows how to use his robust tenor, rising to firm climaxes in "Music of the Night" but often whispering or half-speaking lines for dramatic effect. He conveys pathos, inner turmoil and menace, and he's credible as a would-be lover.

Wilson (who lived in Charlotte as a boy in the 1970s) can't do more than his simplistic part allows, but he sings with a lyrical sweetness and makes the most of the swordfight that has been added to the cemetery scene. (He almost always wears white, the Phantom black. Subtle, this ain't.)

The one character that has changed from the stage version is Christine. The 18-year-old Rossum, best known in America for "The Day After Tomorrow," looks virginally innocent and sings with the small, attractive but untrained soprano of a chorus girl just beginning to explore her potential.

Yet costumer Alexandra Byrne suggests the woman emerging from this girl. When the Phantom first takes the semi-delirious Christine to his subterranean lair, she swoons in the bottom of his boat in a low-cut dressing gown, her white stockings rolled halfway down. (She awakens bare-legged; has something occurred?)

When Schumacher sticks to romance and mystery, he doesn't set a foot wrong. The same is true of pathos: Miranda Richardson is especially fine as Madame Giry, the ballet mistress who has long been the Phantom's only apologist.

Comedy is another matter. Driver delivers lines in a shriek overlaid with a thick Italian accent, and Carlotta's singing is too often ugly. (Some of Driver's vocals were dubbed.) The moviemakers miss the point: Carlotta must be a bad person, not a bad singer, or audiences would not have made her a star.

In case we don't know how disliked she is, janitors put plugs in their ears when she sings, and a stagehand moons her. Luckily, the rest of the film avoids such boorishness, and even the silly scenes have Lloyd Webber's score -- the most sumptuously intoxicating of the last two decades, for my money -- flowing through them.

As all composers do when adapting a stage work for the screen, he has written one extra song to qualify for an Oscar nomination. It drones away over the end credits, a bland mint at the end of a rich but heavy meal, and requires nobody's attention.


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