I dreaded having to slog through a four-hour Phantom miniseries for two reasons: (1) because I hate costume dramas (so sue me, I’m a philistine), and (2) because Andrew Lloyd Webber’s immensely popular Broadway schlockization of the venerable Gaston Leroux story would seem to have closed off any possibility of revitalizing the old and now-cheapened material.

But the adaptation by playwright Arthur Kopit ignores Lloyd Webber and plays straight with Leroux’s engaging melodrama about a demented, disfigured man haunting the Paris Opera House at the turn of the century. The result is a tale freed not only of Lloyd Webber’s treacly music, but of any trace of campiness as well.

Charles Dance (The Jewel in the Crown) plays the Phantom as a brooding romantic; he prowls the rafters of the Opera House sneaking glimpses of Christine (newcomer Teri Polo), the object of his affection.

In lesser hands, a TV Phantom of the Opera easily could have become Beauty and the Beast Go to Paris, but Kopit and director Tony Richardson spare us that torture. They make the romance between the Phantom and Christine both touching and frightening, and the casting of Burt Lancaster as Carriere, the manager of the opera company, gives the story weight and great charm.

Lancaster is wonderful. Just as he did in his recent feature films, Lancaster uses his age as an acting advantage-it’s surprising to see how quickly he moves and how handsome his sagging face remains. In this Phantom, Lancaster is the crucial link between the Phantom and Christine, and he brings them together with a graceful delicacy.

At a time when horror movies require spurting blood and ripped body parts to elicit screams, The Phantom of the Opera has a few old-fashioned but genuinely scary moments when the Phantom appears to startled operagoers or kills off the soldiers ordered to capture him. It’s as if Richardson went back to look at old horror movies by such filmmakers as Val Lewton and James Whale to figure out how they got their spooky but never gruesome effects; if so, he learned well.

The production is marred by Adam Storke’s bland Count de Chagny; it’s impossible to believe that Christine would prefer this petulant pretty-boy over Dance’s funky-faced Phantom. But all in all, The Phantom of the Opera is a real achievement: It’s rare enough for a costume drama to show up on TV these days; the fact that this is a good one is amazing. A-

The Phantom of the Opera
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