Opera

Aided by the spectacular backdrop of Sydney Harbour, this production of The Phantom of the Opera is easy to love. By Cassie Tongue.

The Phantom of the Opera

The performers fill the staircase in The Phantom of the Opera.
The performers fill the staircase in The Phantom of the Opera.
Credit: Prudence Upton

Sydney contains multitudes of identities, aesthetics and communities, but it’s probably best known as a place that craves and projects spectacle. The harbour city is given to expressions of dramatic beauty, both natural and architectural. And it loves parties.

Could any other city so comfortably be home to Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH), the pop-up outdoor opera theatre that sits over the water at Mrs Macquaries Point? Established in 2012, it already feels part of the cultural establishment’s heartbeat.

During the HOSH season, sunsets give way to lighting rigs and the now customary fireworks, the stage backdropped by the city skyline – with the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge on display – while audience members in formal clothing defy the chance of early autumn showers. Of all Opera Australia’s initiatives, this one feels easiest to reach out and touch, likely because attending HOSH is as much a performance as the show itself. It’s a product, an experience, an aspirational lifestyle event.

And could any other show fit the HOSH mould as perfectly as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera? Phantom isn’t the first musical to take Opera Australia’s most breathtaking outdoor stage – in 2019, the HOSH season featured West Side Story – but it’s probably the format’s best spiritual match.

Its Gothic elements, Palais Garnier setting – complete with underground lake – and fraught love triangle sit comfortably in a world built for the melodrama of operatic narratives, and Lloyd Webber’s score, played by an orchestra of 27, is as lush an experience as the other shows – Turandot or La Traviata – in the HOSH repertoire.

While the music may be less complex and more sprinkled with dated but frankly delightful ’80s synth than many traditional operas, hearing Phantom in full complement is a new rarity. When the show reopened in the West End in 2021,  after a Covid shutdown, the pit was reduced from 27 players to just 14. The score, led here on the harbour by Guy Simpson, feels like a pleasurable indulgence.

So much of this production is a study in the luxe beauty of spectacle. Directed by Simon Phillips, a pure showman of a director with a penchant for panache, this production is in a romance with itself. It’s in love with Georgina Hopson’s breathtaking top notes as ingenue Christine Daaé, Nick Schlieper’s lights always insisting on finding and lingering on her until the phrase is complete and hanging on the wind.

It is entranced by Joshua Robson’s Phantom, whose tortured moods are writ large, volume up in Shelly Lee’s sound design on even his quietest moments to ensure we don’t miss a single word or howl. Even when microphone cues were delayed or missed on opening night – a common mistake in early performances of complex shows – the meaning was clear, the ensemble projecting intentions effortlessly on a stage almost two-and-a-half times larger than any indoor space in Australia.

Often in HOSH shows, directors demonstrate a compulsive need to fill the expanse of the stage. This creates problems in dramaturgy – lovers will be standing an implausible two metres apart to share confidences and express their love.

Phillips avoids this disconnect entirely because the world of the musical takes place on a set built by Gabriela Tylesova, a designer whose imagination embraces spectacle but always finds room for scale and intimate detail. The frequent collaborators also worked together on the Australian season of Love Never Dies, Lloyd Webber’s preferred production, which was filmed for posterity.

The set is a broken proscenium in the open air, with red velvet-curtained opera boxes on one side and an enormous and dazzling wraparound staircase that appears to begin in the water and end in the sky. Tylesova adds moving set pieces – a floating gondola for that underground lake, Christine’s dressing room on a raised platform that moves in and out of the playing space – that create dimension and direct the eye. When lit and located centre stage, this expansive world feels small enough to touch and almost believable.

There is plenty to gasp at. The lake is ringed with fire as the Phantom and Christine descend into it; fireworks erupt as the first act draws to a close; the Phantom makes a second-act appearance in a cage lowered by crane. Even the show’s famous falling chandelier is present, hoisted on another crane and covered in 80 light bulbs. Its descent is slow and tentative; that may change as the season continues and the technical aspects of the show – staged after unprecedented rains – are further tested. Still, no matter how slowly it fell on opening night, it held your attention.

The production keeps you engaged. Tylesova’s costumes are colourful, intricate and draped with feathers; at one point, the Phantom wears a truly outrageous hat. In the second-act opener, “Masquerade”, the array of costumes on the ensemble knocks you back in your seat.

In this production, “Masquerade” is surprisingly powerful. Second-act openers are generally light fare – they’re designed to help an audience settle back into the world of the show after interval and are slow to advance the plot, to accommodate stragglers returning from the bathroom or the bar. “Masquerade” is no exception, but on the harbour, it’s unmissable.

The reason, again, is Tylesova: that giant staircase is barely used in the first act and when it is, the actors largely remain close to the stage. In this number they fill the whole staircase, descending in an elegant choreography (Simone Sault) that’s both refined and just contemporary enough to be surprising. It’s wonderfully extravagant.

The Phantom of the Opera is one of the world’s most popular musicals because of its ability to translate these grand moments into feeling – though it’s Lloyd Webber’s music, rather than Charles Hart and Robert Stilgoe’s lyrics, that has the power. When the operatic setting and Gothic elements coalesce into songs that are connected to the heart, such as the love duet “All I Ask of You” or the thrumming title track, it connects the bassline to your gut until you feel yourself vibrating in your chair, part of the music and part of the magic of the performance.

Phantom isn’t a great musical. Its love story is rife with overblown obsession and abuse, its love triangle poorly explored and its ending pat and sudden. But blown up to oversize proportions and set against a spectacular city backdrop – suspended on the water, temporary and ambitious and impossible – it’s easy to love.

This is the best possible vessel for The Phantom of the Opera – it’s hard to imagine seeing it in a traditional space again. It would be like picking up a once-beloved childhood toy and realising, suddenly, how small it really is in your hand. 

The Phantom of the Opera plays at Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney, until April 24.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "Phantom magic".

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Cassie Tongue is a theatre critic and writer living on unceded Gadigal land.

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