BLOG Sophie BaggottNWR Issue 109
The Phantom of the Opera at Castell Coch
The story of a ghostly figure's ruthless desire for an opera singer certainly fitted the bill for an event in Chapter's Tainted Love season. As for the setting, there were no taints whatsoever in their 'The Phantom of the Opera' screening at Castell Coch. The presentation of the 1925 silent horror was neither silent nor horrifying. Two singers from Welsh National Opera serenaded our entry into the beautiful courtyard – and these winning first impressions only strengthened as the evening went on.
The atmosphere was enchanting. Fairy lights swung from the stone walls above the projections of masks and roses which decorated the alcoves. The opening half-hour window of opera allowed everyone to take their seats as and when they liked. An artisan pizza stall greeted guests on their approach to the drawbridge, and the hospitality was extended inside with coffee served in the castle's câfé. A masked man hovered near the wooden gate, and the theatrical charm was amplified by the pianist accompanying the opera singers. The overall effect was incredibly genial.
Once the musical ensemble had wrapped up, we heard a short talk introducing this CADW–Chapter collaboration – and, crucially, hyping up the imminent onscreen appearance of the 'swoonsome' Lon Chaney as the Phantom. Yet the film felt almost a little secondary to the operatic introduction and backdrop. The nighttime chill set in shortly after the Phantom had begun, and a slightly earlier start might have alleviated the shivery context.
Nonetheless the film is undeniably compelling. The cinematic adaptation of Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel follows the Phantom's lovelorn pursuit of the understudy Christine Daaé, which leads him to wreak chaos at the Paris Opera House. Any anxiety about a potential outdatedness to this silent film was misguided. The evening's soundtrack (so-far superb) continued its upward streak with a specially commissioned electronic score by Steepways Sound Collective alongside the black-and-white scenes. Admittedly the volume nearly deafened me at the start – probably due to my proximity to the front speakers – but either my hearing suffered long-lasting damage or the decibels soon dropped to tolerable levels. The intertitles worked well to fill gaps in the actors' ability to convey narrative and dialogue.
As someone who did not already know the plot, I was captivated. The Phantom's initial attempts to elevate his beloved Christina to prima donna ultimately fall flat, so he throws the Opera House into uproar and entices the young singer down to his lair in the building's dungeons. The creepiness of his intrigues is blunted by the absurdity. At one point the Phantom is seen to cry, 'I have brought you here – five cellars underground – because I love you!' The event organisers' use of smoke machines gave a brilliant immersive feel to the action – just one of the many intricate details that made this such a magical evening.
Aside from tweaks to the Welsh climate, this site-specific screening wanted for nothing. The haunted surroundings of Castell Coch were pitch-perfect, and the event had clearly been orchestrated painstakingly. It paid off. My initiation into silent films was a resoundingly enjoyable experience, and – assuming the addition of a few extra layers and gloves – I would recommend such an event to anyone.
is a student on Cardiff University's Journalism MA course.
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