Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Phantom of the Opera had the blessing of the gods on opening night, with the rain clouds that have near-relentlessly plagued the city during the La Niña summer graciously holding back for the full duration of the show, and a bare whisper of a breeze. You could even hear crickets during the quiet moments (in a good way).
Of the outdoor Handa Opera shows that have been staged on the harbour during its ten year history, this would have to be among the most ambitious and extravagant. A plethora of moving parts, slippery slopes, technical wizardry, and incendiary special effects require perfect positioning and precise timing. Then you have a script and score that demand vocal mastery and intense emotional expression. Put it all on a stage with a footprint double and a half the size of any other theatrical stage in the country, throw in a sweeping staircase and an enormous chandelier held aloft by a crane, and you pretty much have a floating powder keg just waiting for an errant spark.
If any of this bothers the performers, they certainly don’t let it show.
But for some very minor glitches, the performance on Friday night went like clockwork, which was very fortunate since Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber himself was in attendance.
Revered designer, Gabriela Tylesova, is the inventive genius behind the set and costumes. She effectively had to work against the expansive surrounds of Sydney Harbour to conjure an illusion of the lush Paris Opera interior and the bleak subterranean lair of the phantom. And she succeeds admirably.
A multi-level tower at the left of the stage houses two opera boxes, one above the other, and an arched doorway at ground level. A broken proscenium protrudes sideways from the top of the tower with a single red velvet curtain draped beneath and tied against the tower. The aforementioned staircase extends from the top of the tower in profile, then fans out in a majestic curve where it meets the stage face on. There is a grand moat around the front circumference of the stage and several other entry/exit points.
The imposing set blocks out the incongruous surrounds and truly allows the audience to be immersed in aristocratic Paris circa 1881.
Equally sumptuous are the costumes. Not only does she dress the Parisian gentry, but Tylesova gets the added treat (which she shares) of creating costumes for an internal opera and ballet. Tylesova’s designs augment the personalities of their characters: delicate, laced gowns worn by Christine; gaudy, ostentatious outfits donned by Carlotta and Ubaldo; an austere black dress uncompromisingly worn by Madame Giry; and of course the Phantom’s sinister yet heroic long coats and broad hats.
Joshua Robson is magnificent in the role of the Phantom. His voice is powerful and resonant, yet wistful in moments of vulnerability. He has a menacing presence on stage and maniacal energy.
Georgina Hopson’s Christine is endearing. Her vocals penetrate the air with brilliant force and her portrayal as the leading lady takes her convincingly from a young, unassuming ingenue to a more knowing, compassionate diva.
Callum Francis, best known for his starring role in the West End and Australian tour of Kinky Boots, is a fresh take on Raoul. Francis has a vibrancy and earnestness that contrasts well with the malevolence of the Phantom.
Michael Cormick as Monsieur Frimin and Martin Crewes as Monsieur André work together like a vaudevillian comedy duo, taking the edge off an otherwise rather dark story. Similarly but much more slapstick, Naomi Johns as Carlotta and Paul Tabone as Ubaldo provide comic relief.
Maree Johnson, on loan from the Broadway production of Phantom, brings gravity and a kind of life-earned wisdom to the role of Madame Giry, no doubt informed by having played Christine in the original Sydney production.
Kelsi Boyden flits dutifully about as Meg Giry, ever eager but not quite the prodigy her mother Madame Giry might have wanted.
Director Simon Phillips has drawn on the inherent strengths of his cast, allowing them nuance in their performances while remaining familiar and true to the script.
The breadth of the performance space means there’s a lot of exacting choreography and movement design. The cast does well just to cover the sort of distances they do without sounding breathless. Every inch of space is used advantageously, including the areas beyond the invisible proscenium (with the help of a well-placed crane). The staircase in particular adds a unique visual dimension; the Busby Berkley-like cascading ensemble in ‘Masquerade’ is one stand-out moment.
Phantom of the Opera is already an extraordinary show that has accumulated rock solid fans over three decades of continuous performances. The Handa Opera on the Harbour production does something that might not have seemed possible – it adds even more magic.
You will never forgive yourself if you don’t experience the unforgettable strains of ‘Music of the Night’ wafting over the harbour.