Sydney Opera House, August 26, 2022
One of the stranger side effects of Covid has been Opera Australia’s double dip into The Phantom of the Opera. First up was the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour extravaganza directed by Simon Phillips earlier this year. Now a new production – new to Australia, at least – has taken up residence in the Sydney Opera House where it was to have been seen last year.
With any other musical this repetition would be a highly risky proposition; not so much with one of the most successful theatrical ventures of all time. And as it happens, lightning has struck twice.
Phantom phans rejoice. The year has seen two stellar Phantoms (Joshua Robson on the Harbour, Josh Piterman in the House) and gorgeously sung Christines (Georgina Hopson and Amy Manford respectively).
On the harbour Phantom looked spectacular, filling the outdoors stage with colour and energy. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gothic melodrama looks and feels quite different in the relatively small Joan Sutherland Theatre, where its hothouse intensity is ratcheted up mightily.
On Sydney Harbour more was more as a big ensemble spilled down designer Gabriela Tylesova’s vast staircase, fire erupted as Robson’s Phantom took Hopson’s young, naive Christine Daaé to his lair and the shows within the show were adorned with astonishing costumes (Tylesova again).
The piece could take it. Phantom is Lloyd Webber’s heart-on-sleeve paean to the intoxicating power of the voice and the music that lets it fly. Phillips pulled off the supremely difficult task of finding intimacy on a stage the size of an aircraft carrier while enjoying what the space had to offer.
Phantom revels in opera’s outsized personalities, backstage chaos and, above all, mad plots that somehow reveal deep emotional truths. If you want to get all meta, Phantom is a musical that’s really an operetta about opera wrapped around the most heart-piercing narrative of them all: obsession and loss.
It’s not all sturm und drang. Lloyd Webber has fun creating pastiches of various operatic forms and it’s fascinating to hear how deftly he weaves together vastly different sounds worlds. The composer knows his opera and there is much for aficionados to enjoy. Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable is referenced in Phantom’s opening scene, Mozart is freely copied and anyone familiar with Puccini’s La fanciulla del West will recognise a phrase very similar to one in Music of the Night.There is G&S-style bantering from theatre managers André and Firmin and, of course, Lloyd Webber’s soaring show tunes.
Somehow it all hangs together. The composer rightly describes the piece as having “a huge element of hokum” but it also throbs with thwarted desire. That desperate need for love and fulfilment is the big takeaway from the production currently at the Sydney Opera House, less grand in scale than on the Harbour, obviously, and not quite as big as the original 1986 staging with its fabled falling chandelier and candle-lit subterranean lake but more intimate and detailed in delivery.
Paul Brown’s set, designed to tour, economically summons the atmospherics of a 19th-century theatre. There are lovely backdrops and lavish costumes (Maria Bjornsen’s original designs) for the opera-within-popera rehearsals and performances, nailed with extravagant brio by Giuseppina Grech as flamboyant Carlotta and Paul Tabone as the slightly dim Piangi. Well, he is a tenor.
Behind the scenes there are utilitarian offices, shabby corridors and a heart-stoppingly vertiginous flight of stairs, ingeniously appearing, that leads to the Phantom’s hiding place. It’s where the masked man composes feverishly, plots against the Opera Populaire and acts as unseen mentor to Christine.
Hokum? To be sure, but not too far from many an opera libretto. It’s obviously no coincidence the Phantom presents Christine with the Tosca option: stay with me and save the man you love (Blake Bowden’s forthright, courageous Raoul), or go and let him die.
The Phantom may have only 17 minutes of stage time (Lloyd Webber verifies this in his autobiography Unmasked) but his grip on the action is unceasing. Piterman, back in Australia after West End performances in the role, finds vulnerability and fragility in this irrevocably damaged and dangerous man.
The late Act II duet with Christine, Point of No Return, is a howl of pain and right at the end his voice is tremulous with longing. Piterman has not been better. Manford’s lithe, bright, warm soprano is the necessary foil to Piterman’s darkness and equal to the operatic demands of the role. The deceptively simple Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again, addressed to her late father, was ravishing. (As is customary there’s an alternate Christine, New Zealand-born Bridget Costello, to take the role at some performances. Like Piterman and Manford, she is another who has performed the role on the West End.)
The marvellous supporting cast includes David Whitney and Andy Morton providing pleasing light relief as Firmin and André and Jayde Westaby as a thoughtfully understated Madame Giry.
Happily OA fields a full orchestra of 27. In the UK, where this staging has replaced the original, the number has been slashed by half. On opening night Lloyd Webber’s eclectic score was rousingly delivered, albeit a touch over-amplified.
Oddly, on opening night most of the Sydney Opera House audience was unmasked.
The Phantom of the Opera ends in Sydney on October 16. Melbourne, October 30-January 29.
A version of this review appeared in The Australian on August 27.