Rupert Julian‘s 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera is a strange little thing.
When compared to the horror masterpieces of the time – chiefly FW Murnau‘s Nosferatu and Robert Wiene‘s Cabinet of Dr Caligari – it is insignificant and stilted.
It lacks the hallucinatory beauty of those masterpieces of German expressionism, and stretches its threadbare plot to breaking point.
Lon Chaney‘s performance in the title role has gained the work fame, and there are a number of extremely memorable sequences. The scenes inside the opera house are especially beautiful and awash with detail, especially when presented in the technicolor-tinted restoration.
The unmasking of the phantom, the scene atop the opera house, the ever-accelerating pace of the final chase have all gone down as great moments of horror cinema. The film’s influence also cannot be underestimated. Most pleasingly, Roger Corman borrowed the daring use of colour from the masked ball scene for his own film The Masque of the Red Death.
The Phantom of the Opera, however, does not engage the audience throughout its 100 minute running time. The packed house on Sunday evening initially was willing to forgive the atrocious acting, lengthy scenes of exposition and dramatic overindulgence, but as the evening progressed, restlessness set in.
Were it not for the playing of the orchestra, many would surely have walked before the end. The orchestra was indeed the main reason to catch this screening. Carl Davis conducted his own score, which is effective without coming close to Bernard Herrmann‘s astounding work on the 1922 Nosferatu. The use of music from Charles Gounod‘s Faust provoked many smiles of recognition around the house, while the original composition is cinematic and evocative.
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera produced a sensational sound, proving itself once again to be among the greatest opera house bands currently performing. The mysterious, other-worldly orchestral shimmers at the Phantom’s entrance in the Ball and the exotic glow at the opening of the closet door seemed to come from another realm of being. Elsewhere, the piercing orchestral trill at the fall into the room of mirrors and the final galloping drum beat excited the primal senses where the film did not.
Davis is celebrating his 70th birthday, and his conducting radiates a life’s experience of both classical music and music for film. He may have fluffed an entry in the early ballet scene and perhaps his stabbed forte chord upon the unmasking of the Phantom came a second too early, but all was forgiven in the final headlong charge towards the finishing post.
This was the first silent film screening in the Royal Opera House since the 1920s, and hopefully it will become a regular occurrence. Sadly in this instance, the playing of the orchestra did not compensate fully for the uneven pleasures of the film.