Cathedral’s festival celebrated by satanism and the supernatural in film and music

The Phantom of the Opera – silent film accompanied by organ
A Cathedral Jubilee Festival Event
Barry Brinson – organ, Hannah Catrin Jones – soprano

Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 26 July, 7:30 pm

How satisfying is the experience of a silent film?

As part of the Cathedral’s 50th anniversary, a famous silent film made in 1925 was screened, with a dedicated sound-track comprising a live organ performance. The inspiration for an organ accompaniment came from the theme of the film itself set in the Paris Opéra where performances of Gounod’s Faust were taking place. The film tells the tale of an organ-playing ‘Phantom’ which has taken up residence in the dungeons beneath the theatre and is doomed to remain there with his deformed face until a woman loves him.

The woman targeted is an opera singer, Christine, who is understudy to the role of Marguérite in a production of Faust. The Phantom makes it known that the prima donna, Carlotta, must stand aside so that Christine can sing the role.

Our first encounter with the opera is the ballet scene (well, two of the seven numbers in the ballet) which Gounod wrote when Faust was produced by the Paris Opéra in 1869 (it had premiered at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1859, with spoken dialogue and various other differences from the version usually performed today). The ballet was an addition to the orgiastic witches’ scene on the Brocken in the Harz mountains in central Germany, known as the Walpurgisnacht: another appropriate link with the Gothic (last year your reviewer went by steam train up to the Brocken searching for evidence of earlier heathen depravity, but was disappointed).

After the threat has been fulfilled and Carlotta is ‘sick’, we hear Christine singing Marguérite’s affecting last act aria, ‘Anges purs, anges radieux’, sung beautifully by Hannah Catrin Jones. But the next night in spite of the Phantom’s threat, Carlotta again attempts the role, and Hannah sings the Jewel Song (it would have been nice to have had surtitles for the words of these), but amid flickering lights, the mighty chandelier in the auditorium crashes on to the audience. The Phantom seizes Christine and holds her in the dungeon below the theatre.

In the second half Hannah sang ‘Il était un roi de Thule’ and the Phantom at his organ went through the motions of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor: M. Brinson did it much better, as he did with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. After the final chase leading to the disposal of the Phantom in the Seine, Brinson played one of those splendid Lefébure-Wély-type pieces with which Parisians make their exits from church.

There is no need to narrate the complex and rather contrived story after that, and its departures from the original novel as well as the changes made in the course of the film’s production; the ad hoc modifications that had to happen in the course of recovering and restoring the film, the original 35 mm version of which had been lost, are to be found on the Internet.

So: how satisfying as a theatrical and music experience was this silent movie?

The film cannot really rank as a classic of the silent film era, as there is far too much incoherent, clichéd, ‘horror’ effects, suspense, pointless chase scenes, dwelling on the Phantom’s hideous face and the satanic elements, not to mention a story that echoes, in a confused way, aspects of the ancient Wandering Jew or Flying Dutchman legends, hinting at the idea of redemption through a woman’s sacrifice, as well as echoes of the Faust story itself.

Many would have been there for the music though. While Barry Brinson accompanied with imagination and frequent pointed effects, any attempts to echo the supernatural and the intended terrifying phases of the story did not quite measure up to the kinds of music such things might inspire from an imaginative composer of today, so that the dated visual devices were hardly rescued from their weaknesses by the injection of dramatic and chilling music.

Nevertheless, the presence of an organist who knew his way around this versatile instrument and managed generally to find music, some from related material such as the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of the story, with a lot of tremolo rather than much real musical evocation of scenes of ‘horror’ and suspense. Yet we heard a musician of impressive improvisatory, and well as memory skills who actually produced the kind of musical accompaniment that might have been heard in the 1920s in a movie theatre.

The novel and the film of The Phantom of the Opera fall into the broad class of Gothic fiction that arouse in the late 18th century.

The Gothic pattern involved calling up a variety of effects and situations: mysterious, supernatural, terrifying or horror-filled. There are visions, omens, shadows on walls, ghosts, ancient castles, or, in this case, a rather wondrous neo-gothic – architecturally neo-almost-everything – opera house; they often involved a woman threatened by violence from a fiendish character, accompanied by staring eyes, fainting, screaming.  The story makes great use of suspense, supernatural events, inanimate things coming to life, appearances and disappearances, a woman in danger, tyranised by a crazed or evil man.

The French origin of the film was a novel of the same name that appeared in serialised form in 1909-10. It was emphatically in the tradition of the Gothic fiction that touched poetry, drama and the novel, as well as opera and ballet and the visual arts throughout the 19th century. It was a very important sub-genre of the Romantic movement.

The movement had started with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto in 1764 and novels of Ann Radcliffe such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, The Monk by Matthew Lewis (who became known as ‘Monk Lewis’), aspects of Walter Scott’s novels, the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, elements of Dickens, like Little Dorrit and Great Expectations. Later examples were Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.

The genre flourished in the German Romantic movement from the time of Schiller’s Die Räuber in 1782 (which became Verdi’s I masnadieri), Kleist, Tieck and most importantly ETA Hoffmann. Jean Paul’s novels were steeped in the genre (his Titan reverberated through the 19th century, even, misleadingly, to Mahler’s First Symphony). In opera there was Weber’s Der Freischütz, with Samiel, the Satanic ‘Black Hunter’ and the magic bullets, Marschner’s Der Vampyr drawn from a story by John William Polidori, the creator of ‘Vampire literature’ – a sub-genre; and de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine (a water sprite) which inspired much later writing and music, such as operas by Hoffmann himself, Lortzing and Dvorák’s Rusalka.

In Russia, Gothic elements exist in Pushkin’s Queen of Spades and Lermontov’s Demon (both of which inspired operas by, respectively, Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein).

Later in the 19th century the style revived with R L Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Henry James The Turn of the Screw. And of course it could be no surprise that the cinema soon realised how brilliantly the whole assemblage of hysterical and supernatural nonsense could be exploited on the screen.