Music Theatre

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: The Phantom of the Opera review

A perfect choice for the grand Handa Opera treatment, beloved classic The Phantom of the Opera has never looked so spectacular. 

Watching a representation of the Paris Opera House in front of Sydney Opera House, the backstage setting of the Opera Populaire provides in-jokes to be enjoyed and savoured by the opera cognoscenti. It helps when the Opera Australia audience has full context of the styles represented in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pastiche opera sequences. 

On opening night, the on-stage conceit of the Phantom being present for the performance of his opera was mirrored by Lloyd Webber himself being in the audience for the performance of his musical. Thankfully, the Lord did not take the parallel too far and murder the leading man to take his place!

Having successfully brought fresh life to Love Never Dies in 2011, Director Simon Phillips reassembles his crack team to take on the prequel. Blessed with the distinction of creating the only brand-new staging of The Phantom of the Opera in its history, the team makes good use of the double-sized cast to create terrific tableaux.

Although occasionally bested by the sheer size of ground to cover by cast members and set pieces, when the production is at its best it is vividly memorable. Flow is initially somewhat jerky but smooths significantly throughout act two. If a degree of the original menace is diminished in the outdoor setting, the lavish splendour more than compensates for this, and the music is glorious.

Contributing epic scenery and stunning costumes, designer Gabriela Tylesova works her celebrated magic once again. The grandest of staircases embraces the stage, with half an ornately gilded proscenium arch carrying a section of red curtain, perhaps in homage to original designer Maria Björnson. Further rococo flourishes grace a large mobile set piece (with magic mirror), which rotates to portray Christine’s dressing room, the Phantom’s lair, and more. Tylesova’s showiest tricks are the fire-framed gondola ride to the subterranean and the Phantom’s flying chariot. There may be no trumpeting elephant for Hannibal, but the iconic chandelier rises and falls perfectly on cue.

Multitudinous costumes, each more gorgeous than the last, create an air of splendid pageantry. Tylesova largely draws from a delectable pastel palette, with a contrasting highlight being Carlotta’s ostentatious scarlet “Prima Donna” outfit. The Phantom’s new quicksilver mask is eye-catching, replaced by an equally bold blood red mask for his “Masquerade” costume. 

Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper paints a wonderfully atmospheric glow on the scene but has difficulty keeping principal characters in sufficient light. At times, only a good knowledge of the show helps the audience know which character to watch. In a lovely piece of collaboration between Schlieper and Tylesova, the rehearsing ballet members bear striking resemblance to Degas’ dancers.

Many of the production’s most beautiful moments are the work of choreographer (and assistant director) Simone Sault, who has a clear eye for spectacular use of the large cast and mighty space. Sault achieves a high level of precision and yet always maintain a lightness of touch. The entr’acte is danced and the full company sequence in “Masquerade” is a stunning highlight. 

International music supervisor of The Phantom of the Opera for decades, local maestro Guy Simpson conducts with inimitable flair, and it is a joy to hear the original 27-musician arrangements. Boosted by sheer numbers, choral sequences also have an added glory. 

The music sound suitably lush in Shelly Lee’s immersive sound design, which also handles the Phantom’s directional voice-overs with movie-theatre precision. Less successful are the microphone cues, a lamentable number of which were missed on opening night; hopefully this weak link will be swiftly rectified.

Rising from a past of ensemble work (much like Christine Daaé), Joshua Robson gives a sensational breakout performance as the Phantom. Much of the role relies on vocal performance, and Robson sings with luxurious vocal tone, revelling in rich baritone warmth and soaring to higher notes when needed. Robson’s vivid acting of the role through well-judged vocal expression is enhanced when seen on stage in a dynamically physicalised performance. 

Soprano du jour Georgina Hopson delights again as Christine, singing the role in glorious style and bringing truth to the melodrama with a committed approach and stellar acting. Hopson’s impassioned singing of “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” is a true vocal highlight of the evening.

Burdened with a frightful wig, Callum Francis struggles to raise Raoul above the nice guy sap that he is, coming good towards the end as the Vicomte’s heroics escalate.

Music theatre royalty, Michael Cormick and Martin Crewes bring delicious cheek to theatre managers Messrs Firmin and André, successfully delineating the pair of amusingly beleaguered characters. 

Returning to Sydney after years in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, Maree Johnson (a portrayer of Christine Daaé in the original Sydney season) expertly conveys Madame Giry’s frosty faith in the Phantom and stamps her command on the mysterious woman’s icy rule of the Opera Populaire company. Kelsi Boyden colours Meg with charming sweetness.

Naomi Johns convincingly sings with overly strident tone in Carlotta’s opera scenes, tempering this with a gentler approach in backstage scenes. Paul Tabone brings abundant character to equally conceited divo Piangi. The pair achieves welcome laughs with the deliberately exaggerated arrogance of their characters.

Lachlan O’Brien is a suitably fastidious rehearsal master Monsieur Reyer. Daniel Macey uses a jarringly broad Australian accent as stagehand Joseph Buquet. Raphael Wong is luxury casting indeed as Passarino in Il Muto

Attendance at the annual Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is a pleasure in its own right. Having the world’s longest running musical on stage is sure to draw record attendances. The Phantom of the Opera lives again, ready to entertain thousands in this glossy new production. 

The Phantom of the Opera plays at Fleet Steps, Sydney until 24 April 2022. For tickets, click here.

Photos: Opera Australia

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