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TV's De-Mystified `Phantom of the Opera'

Gaston Leroux's renowned figure becomes more human in Arthur Kopit's logical version

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA NBC, Sunday and Monday, 9-11 p.m. Starring Burt Lancaster, Charles Dance, Teri Polo. OF the many particulars this latest go-round with Gaston Leroux's famous novel has going for it, the de-mystification of the notorious phantom - early on - is perhaps the greatest.

In case you're not a student of this story and its many incarnations as plays, musicals, films (you'd have to be a serious student to keep track), you might not be aware of the license taken with the original story to meet varying requirements and tastes over the years. (Not the least of these is the currently-running stage-musical hit, `a la Andrew Lloyd Webber).

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Here, we meet Erik, the disfigured Phantom who lives in the ghoulish catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House not 15 minutes into the drama. As drawn by Arthur Kopit, a three-time Tony nominee (``Wings,'' ``Indians,'' ``Nine'') he is very human, with a more logical and real history that could have led to the ``real events which gave birth to the tale at the turn of the century.''

As recounted by Leroux himself (in George Perry's ``The Complete Phantom of the Opera), those ``real events included the kidnapping of a young singer (Christine Daee), the disappearance of a wealthy opera patron (Vicomte de Chagny), and the death of his elder brother (Count Phillipe).

All were tied to coincidences and bizarre phenomena ascribed to a ghostlike character inhabiting the opera house. From Claude Rains and Lon Chaney in separate film versions to Michael Crawford in the current musical, no one has quite come up with a story-line that is both fantastic and plausible.

``With this version I tried to resolve what I saw to be a potential problem with the previous `Phantom of the Operas,' says Kopit. ``This is not a man who falls in love with women. He hides from the world - so why does he become involved with this particular woman? Why does he put himself in jeopardy for her? What makes him fall in love with Christine Daee?

``It took me about a year, explains Kopit in notes on the production. ``But I finally figured it out. It was her voice. It seemed clear that the Phantom was born at the Opera House and had lived there all his life. It is logical to reason that his mother had worked and died there. So I decided the voice he fell in love with was a tender one he had heard before, the voice of his mother.''

Kopit has also invented a paternal tie between the manager (in this case, former manager) Carriere and the Phantom. ``In previous versions, Kopit explains, ``managers of the Opera had served in various capacities.... I tried to figure out why this manager knows the Phantom so well, why he protects him, and why he is the Phantom's only contact with the outside world. It began to follow that Carriere was the Phantom's father.

With so much spilled out so matter-of-factly in two or three expository scenes, is this ``Phantom'' able to retain some sense of mystery? Mostly yes, though this version gives up what was a masterpiece of horror for a more thoroughly dissected romance. And the twists and turns in this version's plot may owe their very surprise to the story's roots.

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But if realism is a strength, it is also a weakness. Reeling in certain elements from fairy-tale status means others - the overall campiness of overdone opera scenes, the overwrought diva and her bumbling husband, for example - suddenly stick out as inconsistent.

Which also raises the film's most troubling detail: The singing is dubbed. And although there are times when that art's clumsier moments do not detract, there are many times when it does - most importantly in the film's climactic scene. When your protagonist's theme is God's ultimate beauty expressed through the voice of his all-consuming love object, anything less than perfection can be unforgiving. To this ``Phantom's'' credit, there are times when dubbing is uncannily accurate.

There are other quibbles. To suggest that the classical opera technique supposedly taught by Erik to his love could be attained in such a short period (three weeks?) is patently absurd. And Burt Lancaster, though winning in his depth and feeling, is a virtual carbon copy of his recent role in the film ``Field of Dreams'' - and is far from anything French.

But in capturing the spirit, setting, and era of the story, the contributing characters, sets, and direction are all in place. Top kudos go to Charles Dance, who manages moods from despair to stateliness, relying on eyes alone for expression as the masked phantom.

Teri Polo is a winsome, vulnerable Christine, perhaps overly shy but growing stronger as her role unfolds. Ian Richardson (Cholet, the new opera director), Adam Storke (Count Philippe de Chagny) and Andrea Ferreol (as temperamental diva Carlotta) round out a solid supporting cast.

Though this ``Phantom of the Opera'' fully creates a world and a story unto itself - including an anxiety-ridden denouement filmed from the roof of the real Paris Opera House, viewers may want to bone up on some of the history that fired the imagination of the story's originator. There are for instance, a huge series of labyrinthine cellars beneath the Paris Opera that lead to a sprawling underground lake, visible through iron grills on the floor.

But even if this is your first encounter with one of literature's most famous masked men, a glance to see this still-evolving legacy is not without its rewards.

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