The Phantom of the Opera: Victor Grynberg reviews the opera on the harbour

March 28, 2022 by Victor Grynberg
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It’s 25 years since I first saw a production of THE PHANTOM, that time in the original production in London’s West End.

Joshua Robson as The Phantom and Georgina Hopson as Christine Daaé in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s 2022 production of The Phantom of the Opera at Mrs Macquaries Point.         Photo Credit: Prudence Upton

Over the years since, I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy the Andrew Lloyd Webber megahit again in London plus New York, Melbourne and Sydney.

Based on the novel by Frenchman Gaston Leroux written in 1910, this work has never stopped being played somewhere since its premier in 1986. To date, it’s been seen in 166 cities in 35 countries But never before in an open-air setting.

Anyone fortunate enough to have ever seen one of the 7 Operas/musicals produced by Opera Australia on Sydney Harbour would be well aware that this is far more than just an open-air setting.

With a stage floating on the Harbour and the glorious views of the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and everything else around it’s breathtaking, to say the least.

Having been every year to a production since they commenced in 2012 (2020 was a non-event due to Covid), I was confident that a triumph was about to occur.

As soon as we saw the set design it was obvious that instead of belittling the drama by making the setting so far away from the intimacy of a theatre, this was going to enrapture the audience.

The set is huge, yet is used brilliantly. It’s designed by multi-award-winning designer Gabriela Tylesova. This design will inspire productions everywhere.

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The production was going to need an extraordinary director to maximise this and in the modern traditions of OA a theatre rather than an opera director was chosen.

New Zealand born, though we claim him as one of ours, the fabulous Simon Phillips (who has done nine operas before this) really knows how to use the stage and all the amazing technical opportunities this set gave him. Phillips combines so many elements to absolute maximum effect. No wonder he is acknowledged as this country’s best-ever director.

When I see a production like this and all the recent triumphs of OA, I become a little sad thinking that Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini who makes the brilliant decisions in selecting such talent is retiring next year.

Thank you Lyndon for all that you have given OA and I know the lucky audiences who have acclaimed so many OA productions under your helm will join me.

So how did the performers do justice to the beloved score?

It’s a team effort and this particular team shone on opening night.

Playing the Phantom, the role made so famous by Michael Crawford and done just as well by our own Anthony Warlow was Joshua Robson. An “unknown” relatively, this was far and away the biggest role of his career to date. The enormous applause he received at the end was a tribute to how well he sang those famous numbers and how well he captured the menacing, then romantic persona of the Phantom.

Christine Daae the love interest of both the Phantom and Raoul was played by Georgina Hopson, a classically trained soprano who excelled on the night. With a crystal clear tone and dramatic ability to match she was a real Christine.

Certainly one of the stars of the night was Callum Francis. Born in the UK where he has done most of his previous work, the good news is that he has now settled in Sydney. I don’t recall seeing Callum before but I look forward to seeing lots of him in the future. As Raoul, Christine’s other suitor, he could almost be accused of being a scene-stealer, such was his stage magnetism. A great performance.

Sydney’s original Christine was Maree Johnson, now wearing a wig and outfit that took her youth away and made her the perfect Madame Giry, the Ballet Mistress.

Naomi Johns as Carlotta and Paul Tabone as Ubaldo have the roles of the former leading artists of the Opera. The Ubaldo role calls for a comic touch as well. Delightfully played by Tabone.

Strong support is provided by Michael Cormick and Martin Crewes as the two new owners of the theatre M. Firmin and M. Andre. Critically in roles so well known, they came across in a convincing and pleasing way.

One of OA’s strengths for many years has been its ballet company. This production calls for all female ballerinas and under the very talented dancer and choreographer Simone Sault they bring joy to the evening.

There is a very large ensemble in this production and whatever roles they played, their precision and well-rehearsed movements and singing was another sign of Director Phillips supreme command.

I’ve always admired the brilliant sound at the Handa operas. This year was no exception. With speakers hidden from view, the sound always seemed to come from near where the performer was speaking or singing. This definitely enhances the drama and full credit to Sound Designer Shelly Lee.

With cranes moving parts of the set around and the ingenious dressing room set-up there were many challenges for the lighting designer, Nick Schlieper. With a curriculum vitae of successes in so many countries besides his Australian home, the technical expertise was there for all to see.

What is an opera without glorious music? Hidden from view, but fortunately, beautifully engineered sound, the playing by the orchestra was very much of the highest standard. I could spot a TV screen nearly fully hidden under the set and there was conductor Guy Simpson enthusiastically waving his baton. With a history of playing and conducting the score that dates over thirty years, it was no surprise that what we heard was so good.

As I sat in my seat loving every moment of the production I was very proud to be an Australian. With the huge team of designers, performers, musicians and technical staff (over 130 people), this was a production not of that hackneyed phrase “world-class “ but in my judgement “world-leading”.

As was so clear by the audience’s rapturous applause at the end of the evening, this production of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was one of the greatest nights I’ve ever experienced in musical theatre.

Adding to the thrills for the audience was seeing Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber himself accompanied by the creative team he had been sitting with joining the mass on stage.

So good that in Handa Opera tradition every technician and musician comes on stage at the end.

The season has sold extremely well already but I urge everyone to try and get a seat before the season ends on April 24th

5 stars

Fleet Steps
Mrs. Macquarie’s Point
Sydney Harbour

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