The Phantom of the Opera

Starring Maximillian Schell as Shandor Korvin

Robert Halmi Production, Aired Originally on CBS, 1983, Horror

Of course I've heard of the Opera Ghost! I know all about opera ghosts. Every opera house has at least one. Paris, Milan, even Covent Garden has opera ghosts. Every time a tenor splits his pants or a soprano goes off key, it's the opera ghost AGAIN!

I love artists when their talents are as great as their egos!

Aren't you a little chilly? I thought you might be with all that naked ambition showing.

~above three quotes by Michael Hartnell, opera house director, played by Michael York

I may be ambitious but I won't go to bed with a man just to advance my career. It's too hard to vocalize lying down... In most great operas, the virgins have the worst parts.

~Maria Gianelli

Orpheus in the Underworld

As with any other movie, this one takes great liberties with the story. The setting is moved out of Paris, France and into Budapest, Hungary, and the characters are renamed. The Phantom is now "Shandor Korvin" (Maximillian Schell) and the Swedish chorus girl Christine Daaé is an Italian-American soprano "Maria Gianelli" (Jane Seymour). The young aristocrat with romantic interests in only one certain chorus girl-turned-diva is now a lascivious old Barron Hunyadi (Jeremy Kemp) who wreaks of sexual harassment. Maria's romantic interest is not a Viscount; he is now a witty, very outspoken English director Michael Hartnell (Michael York). This time, the Phantom and the rat-catcher have a sort of working relationship down in the catacombs.

Shandor Korvin begins as an orchestra conductor. His wife Elena (also played by Jane Seymour) is a struggling soprano who is having difficulties singing the role of Marguerite. He patiently works with her in hopes that she will enjoy a successful debut. After rejecting the advances of the old Barron, however, the old coot arranges to have her boo-ed during her debut and has blackbirds put in her roses during her curtain call. He also makes arrangements with opera critic Oscar Krauss (Phillip Stone) to write a bad review printed about her less than one hour after her performance. Crushed by the humiliation and failure of it all, Elena commits suicide.

Korvin is no fool, he knows exactly what happened and why. He hunts down Krauss who confesses to being pressured by the Barron. A fight between the two men eventually erupts. In the process, a fire breaks out in the room. A bottle of sulfuric acid topples over and splatters Korvin in the face, followed by Korvin's clothes catching on fire. The rat-catcher, who had been over-hearing everything up to this point, rescues a now badly scarred Korvin and takes him down into the tunnels beneath the city. The rat-catcher is able to obtain a map of the sewers and finds an open space for Korvin to use as living quarters - an old abandoned storage chamber right beneath the Budapest Opera House. Thus begins Korvin's life as The Phantom.

What George Perry says in The Complete Phantom of the Opera about Korvin's mask is true. The mask he wears throughout most of this movie is almost as bizarre as his newly acquired visage. That is not a bad thing. I cannot tell what mask it is, but it reminds me of a very decayed mummy. This is one of the very few portrayals of the phantom in a full-faced mask. Even further, this one is a very dark color, almost black, where the other versions show very light-colored masks.

Four years later, a young singer named Maria Gianelli (also played by Jane Seymour) auditions as an understudy for the uncontrollable Brigitta Bianchi (Diana Quick). Bianchi is a young diva whose talented voice is matched only by her hostile temper and her willingness to cater to the Baron's advances. Korvin's romantic obsession with Maria is due to her striking resemblance to his now-deceased wife. Additionally, her voice is remarkably strong and her potential under the right tutelage are extremely promising. Again, the Phantom does not provide singing lessons through any dressing room mirrors. Instead, the lessons are provided in person at his house.

How he was able to keep this house after being presumed dead confuses me, but this is how the lessons were provided. At least Korvin has an assistant and a time span of four years to decorate his Lair and to get that organ down into the sewers.

Strange events begin to occur in the Opera House. Costumes and supplies are reported missing. Props collapse and lights flicker. Bianchi receives a threatening note from someone under the alias "Orpheus," and she automatically suspects her new understudy. After more chronic troubles, such as rats in the jewelry box and drugs in the throat spray, Bianchi resigns.

Maria's romantic interests in the director continues to grow (it leads to a brief bed scene), until the director is threatened and nearly killed by the Phantom. Confused by the director's sudden hostility towards her, Maria asks to meet the Phantom at the Masquerade Ball. The Baron makes his advances with her at the Masquerade, offering to "take her home" in order to advance her career. She rejects this offer. The Phantom, instead of making his appearance as The Red Death, shows up in a mask that resembles his face before he was badly scarred. He tells her not to see any men, threatening her with her life and the life of any man she may love if she disobeys. She runs in fear, jumping into the car with the Barron. Little does either one of them know that the driver is none other than the Phantom's secret assistant, the rat-catcher. Both of them are taken to Korvin's Lair.

Maria makes an attempt to run away while the Baron is taken into the Lair by the rat-catcher. Korvin soon catches up with her and drugs her with chloroform. He carries the unconscious Maria back to his Lair and continues on with his plans concerning the Baron. The Phantom brandishes a knife around the Baron, threatening revenge. At this point, the Baron realizes who the Phantom is. The Baron is then set free but is soon killed by a flock of blackbirds placed in his car. The body is placed neatly on a stage backdrop.

Meanwhile, Maria is kept prisoner. The years of grief and isolation are taking its toll on a man who was at one time passionate, sensitive, and seductive. He tells Maria that she is not ready yet to face the hostile world above, and that he is now ready to have a normal life to enjoy with a wife that he can entertain on Sundays. Maria is able to get his guard down during this moment long enough to yank off his mask, revealing a "Death's Head." Korvin scurries about the floor shouting that she would have remained with him as long as she thought him handsome, that when a woman sees him she belongs to him, and that now she is never allowed to leave. He grabs her hands and tries to get her to touch his face while shouting about how it looks like another mask, a mask behind the mask. Maria at this point is in complete terror.

The inspector (Paul Brooke) is indifferent to the point of laziness or even incompetence. He shows more interest in his dessert than he does in this criminal case; he makes all policemen look bad. Frustrated by this, Hartnell becomes the hero as he goes out on his own to crack the case. He discovers what happened with Korvin and Elena. He also traces down the location of the Phantom's lair.

In Leroux's novel, Christine is permitted a certain level of freedom to come and go as she pleases until Erik overhears her plans to leave Paris with Raoul. In this movie, Maria is never even provided this opportunity. He encourages her laughingly to scream because no one would hear her anyway, then he himself begins to shout for help in order to prove it. Maria's hatred against Korvin grows as he looks on laughing and basking in his new power trip. It is later discovered that he had kept the body of his dead wife with him in this lair, and he had plans of neatly placing the body somewhere outside where it can easily be found so that Maria will be presumed dead by accidental drowning. While he is out to plant the body somewhere along the river, Maria's lover is able to track her down and escorts her out of the Lair.

Feeling too afraid for her own safety, it is agreed that Maria will not perform until the Phantom is found. In the meantime, Bianchi is welcomed back. During the performance, Korvin in his grief plans a murder-suicide by standing on the chandelier as he saws away the chain support. His plans almost backfire when he sees Maria come to sit down right under the chandelier. At this point, it appears Korvin had overcome his power trip and seems to actually love her. He did not have any plans of hurting her in his murder-suicide. Fortunately, Maria sees what is going on in time and screams. Everyone is able to get out of the way, and Korvin falls with the chandelier to his death.

The Music

In contrast to the 1943 film by Universal Studios, this movie does not appear to have any fictional opera. (Of course this means no music written by the Phantom, but what are you going to do?) With a few rare, isolated exceptions, this movie is very dominated by the opera Faust by Charles Gounod.

As the movie begins, the background music during the opening credits is from Faust, at the beginning of "The Church Scene," foreshadowing the gloomy nature of this movie and the demonic nature of this Phantom.

During the rehearsal at the start of the movie, the aria Elena Korvin struggles with is "The Jewel Song" from Gounod's Faust. During her debut, there is a brief glimpse of "The Jewel Song," then it skips to "The Church Scene." During the moment the audience is boo-ing her, they are singing "The Final Trio" from the prison scene.

The aria Brigida Bianchi is singing during her first appearance in the movie is from "The Jewel Song." She is such a sharp contrast to Elena Korvin in voice and in manner. This confident diva flawlessly sings it with ease, then rehearses her courtsy to an imaginary audience so as to "acknowledge their applause." I digress...

During her singing lessons, Maria can faintly be heard singing "Ballad of the King of Thule," "The Jewel Song," and Marguerite's part in "Trio Finale," all from Faust by Gounod. The background music during the... intimate moment between Gianelli and Hartnell is also from Faust, the tune to an aria titled "Avant de quitter ces lieux" (Valentin's Aria). Later during rehearsal, when Hartnell fires Gianelli (after threats from the Phantom), they had been singing the "Trio Finale."

During the masquerade ball, the background music being played is from "Hungarian Rhapsody #2" by Franz Lizst.

At the end of the movie, right before the chandelier falls, "The Church Scene" from Faust is being played out as Marguerite hears voices of demons taunting and condemning her.

My Own Comments and Musings

This movie a convincing and believable portrayal of a dark scary Phantom. He begins as a good man, like Professor Petrie in the 1962 film. Unlike Petrie, however, this time the series of injustice, cruelty, and pain have made this Phantom's heart grow dark and demonic. An already emotional and passionate Korvin has been brutally hurt both emotionally and physically, and so this Lair is his empire where he is The World Leader Pretend, where he can carry out his revenge, bring back his dead wife from the Underworld, and claim whatever he wants as the unquestioned emperor. He even has his organ and a "throne" positioned at an elevated section of his lair. Whether his diva loves him or not no longer matters now that he's got her. He has been able to enact his revenge, his work is done, and now he's ready to have his normal life back again (a tragic impossibility). After he loses her (and thus his wife a second time), he loses all hope. He shows a sign of love at the last minute right before his death.

Another point I want to mention is that, in an odd twist, we see how the opera Faust has become just as real for Maria this time as it is for the Phantom. Throughout this movie, there is chronic reference to The Church Scene in Faust, in which Marguerite is tormented by voices of demons. For Maria, this torment is all too real as she keeps hearing the Phantom speak her name. Everything going bump in the night, every flicker of light, every little noise triggers The Voice as it speaks her name. Furthermore, I had always placed the Phantom in the role Faust, just as tormented and taunted by devils as his Marguerite. Yet in this one, the Phantom is paralleled with Mephistopholes over and over again, even in the opera posters. Gianelli as Marguerite is gazing upwards as though in prayer while Mephistopheles is close behind her. When Bianchi is Marguerite, she poses alone in this same opera poster. (Faust is strangely absent in the posters and the movie, except briefly in two scenes; so brielfy, in fact, you miss him if you blink.) The Phantom, as a Fallen Angel, plays his Mephistopholes to Gianelli's Marguerite to the bitter end.

One thing I would have definitely preferred - it would have made the story far more interesting - would be to reverse the roles of Elena and Maria. While I like Maria Gianelli as a character, she deviates way too much from Christine's character. Maria is already experienced in the world of show business. She bluntly says to the manager's face, "In most great operas, the virgins have all the worst parts." Later on, she easily wards off the advances of the old Barron not by shyly and timidly running away (like Elena did) but by saying in his face, "I intend to become a great singer, not a great mistress." Her voice is already so remarkable that the manager casts her as Marguerite. She is also remarkably ambitious and confident. She doesn't need the Phantom's singing lessons, assistance, or friendship at all. She's already a success. On the other hand, Elena is emotionally vulnerable, shy, naive, and in serious need of singing lessons. According to Little Meg in Leroux's novel, Christine at one time "used to sing like a croak." The Phantom changed that in less than six months. It would have been a more interesting and emotionally charged situation for the new diva Elena - and more loyal to the spirit of Leroux's story as well - to follow this similar pattern, to have Maria Korvin die early on and have the Phantom obsessed with bringing her back from the dead via his friendship and training of Elena Gianelli.

Another thing I miss from this movie is the lack of a work written by the Phantom. This is one of the only movies not to have any fictional operas written by the Phantom. There is no Don Juan Triumphant, no opera about Joan of Arc, not even an equivalent to the Lullaby of the Bells concerto. Eh, well. Can't win them all. At least the arias they use from the real opera Faust is relevant within the context of this movie.

While Leroux never describes the Palais Garnier director as far as I can tell, I am hoping he is a lot like Hartnell. Hartnell has almost all of the good lines. I especially like his rant about opera ghosts (quoted at the top of this page) and when he says about the Prima Donna, "Bianchi? Warm? If she sang Aida, we could all ice skate down the Nile!" He's got an in-your-face wittiness that is funny, unless you are on the receiving end... in which case, it could have a real slap to it.

This was the second movie about the Phantom that I had seen, when it aired on CBS very early in 1983. It has its qualities that make it a bit "dated" such as lip gloss on the leading ladies and Michael York in the Brady Bunch perm. Overall, however, I think they did a remarkable job especially for a made-for-television movie. It is definitely different from the gentler atmosphere of London in the 1962 movie by Hammer films (the first one I had seen). It is definitely one of the most "adult" re-tellings I have seen of the story. Like the other movies, it has its deviations but I still like this one.

Some movie sites and The Complete Phantom of the Opera by George Perry state that this movie deviates so much, Leroux is not given credit nor is it necessary. I could not disagree more, especially since I know that there are some ver batim quotes from his book in this film. That's like saying the 1950's classic "Black Orpheus" is not an Orphic tale because the setting is in 20th century Brazil. That's just crazy talk! Like the 1925 silent film starring Lon Chaney, this one is a believable take on a darker, scarier side of Erik's character in my humble opinion. It's too bad this one is so difficult to find on video. It is currently available on DVD in England, but no equivalent in the United States. I suppose one can always hope.

Faustian Phantoms | The Church Scene

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