For 36 years now, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lushly romantic gothic melodrama and soaring score has broken records for attendance and accolades around the world. While the current New York production remains intact and exists as Broadway’s longest running show, the original West End production became a controversial and arguably opportunistic covid casualty. Despite declarations from producers that the show would return to the West End in its original form, the production reopened in July of 2021 with a scaled down design and only half of what was once the West End’s largest orchestra. Show devotees and long-term cast and crew despaired at the changes made to this London icon with Lloyd Webber underplaying and defending the alterations and referring to the new version as “Substantially identical” to the original. Looking anew at a long-standing work isn’t a bad thing, after all, taste and technologies change but if you are going to honour a classic, starting again or refreshing what already exists is surely preferable to dilution.
So, what of Opera Australia’s choices?
With the Arts finally emerging from a truly devastating few years, surely no one would blame, or indeed deny Opera Australia an opportunity to claw back some lost revenue by staging a sure bet. Why wouldn’t a company consider the benefits of mounting one of the world’s most popular musicals on the world’s most beautiful harbour? Opera Australia could quite easily have hashed together an “it’ll do” production and still achieved a solid return – what they’ve done however, unlike in the West End perhaps, is quite the opposite.
Seizing this once in a career opportunity, the incredible creative forces behind this production of Phantom have triumphed and powerfully re-imagined one of musical theatres most enduring and recognisable works against a globally famous backdrop.
Walking toward and subsequently arriving at Mrs Macquarie’s Point, it is impossible not to feel exhilarated by the sheer scale of the stage housing Gabriela Tylesova’s opulent sweeping staircase, theatre boxes, ornate severed proscenium and of course the shows iconic chandelier dumped on the stage awaiting illumination. Phantom has always been synonymous with spectacle and special effects and what has been so beautifully realised here is the instant familiarity of the brand new. The show’s set pieces are known to millions the world over and even before that gavel first hits its sound block in the opening sequence auction, there is utter joy in anticipating how this incredible design will be utilised.
Director Simon Phillips has dug deep and absolutely rattled the keys he’s been handed to unlock this production. The time taken to freshly explore the narrative is genuinely evident and delivers new moments of drama and empathy for all characters but particularly for the leads. The Phantom, for example, feels more lascivious than chivalrous making him darker and less sympathetic while conversely affording Christine more agency in her choices. Nothing feels different for difference’s sake but instead reconsidered with innovative vision. Capturing authentic intimacy on a stage of this scale and with an entire city behind it is indeed an impressive feat and it’s been achieved here remarkably by Phillips and his players along with an incredible lighting design from Nick Schlieper.
Effectively populating a stage of this size and synchronising a company of 45 requires immense vision and overview. Choreographer and Assistant Director Simone Sault has masterfully created the most extraordinary pictures while knowingly tipping her hat in homage to Gillian Lynne’s original choreography. The Ballets incorporated within the show’s Opera excerpts were stunning and really maximised the productions larger than usual number of dancers. Of particular note, Act ones ‘Il Muto’ ballet was deliciously bawdier and much more in keeping with the theme of the sequence than Lynne’s original choreography. Act two’s Masquerade Ball felt impossibly epic and cleverly defied all expectation in its use of the set’s incredible staircase by leading to rather than starting from – the spectacle genuinely astounded. Simone Sault’s musical staging of this production is as breath-taking as it is gorgeous and a testimony to an incredible talent.
The grandeur of this show and of course the location unapologetically and wonderfully upstages everything and everyone and the sheer occasion of it all should be utterly embraced for the joy it instils however, performance still matters. Across the board this company is strong. Joshua Robson and Georgina Hopson really deliver in the principal roles with Hopson’s "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" the evenings strongest solo. Naomi Johns was hilarious and scene stealing fabulous on more than one occasion as Carlotta. Michael Cormack and Martin Crewes were fine voiced and perfectly ridiculous as the theatre managers and Maree Johnson as Madame Giry was haunting, rigid and elusive.
Unlike some subsequent performances, the rain on opening night had the decency to drench the audience only as they departed and let’s hope it stays that way because every single person involved in this extraordinary and very limited season deserves better than to be thwarted by inclemency.
Later this year, Opera Australia will have another crack at Phantom. Postponed from 2021, this forthcoming staging boasts a new list of new creative credits, many of whom put their names and ideas into the mix for recent anniversary concerts, UK, and US tours and indeed the ‘revised’ West End production. The star of this show will always be the show itself and with the talent assembled for Melbourne and Sydney, there is no doubting success. It will of course be an interesting exercise to contrast two separate productions by the same company in the same year but no matter how good the indoor offering will be, this unique and incredible reimagination on Sydney Harbour may well be impossible to top.
The Phantom of the Opera
Director Simon Phillips
Venue: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour | Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney NSW
Dates: 25 March – 24 April 2022
Tickets: from $99