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Phantom of the Opera on Sydney Harbour

What’s better than watching a Handa performance on Sydney Harbour? (You know, those performances over water co-starring the best sparklers in the business, our Opera House and Harbour Bridge.)

It’s watching Phantom of the Opera on the harbour. That’s what.

Ok, so full disclosure, Phantom is a particular favourite of mine. I fell in love with the musical (yes, it is a musical, not an opera, because lines are spoken) when it premiered in Melbourne in 1990, starring Anthony Warlow and Marina Prior. The passion was reignited with a London performance and then again in Sydney in 2007 when Warlow reprised the role. Having been a little obsessed ever since, and having also been privileged enough to attend most Handa productions since La Traviata debuted in 2012, the return of the broody, monstrous ”angel of music” was highly anticipated.

But outside? Away from the confines of an indoor set? It was an ambitious first for the Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber show, particularly with Sydney Harbour competing ruthlessly in the background. Other Handas have been enhanced by the glitter of the tableau, so how hard would it be to immerse myself in the grandeur of the Paris Opera house, or the doom and gloom of its caverns and waterways underneath without being distracted?

Not hard at all. I was captivated from start to finish. Yes, it rained and it will probably rain some more throughout its run, but a poncho fixes that (no brollies allowed). Laugh it off and spare a thought instead for the performers about to sing and dance on that completely uncovered and slanted stage. Trust me, as soon as the orchestra, secreted under the stage, (sneak a glance at the screen behind you to see Guy Simpson armed with his baton) fires up with that iconic overture, the goose bumps rise and you’re transported seamlessly to the opera in Paris.

Joshua Robson and Georgina Hopson star in Phantom of the Opera on Sydney Harbour.

Phantom is based on the novel Fantome de L’Opera written by French journalist and author Gaston Leroux in 1910, who was inspired by a catastrophe in 1896 when one of the chandelier’s 800kg counterweight burst through the ceiling into the auditorium of the Paris Opera House. Various films were made afterwards, and in 1986 Lloy Webber launched the musical on the West End, followed by Broadway two years later.

Basically, it’s a love story peppered with drama, murder, sabotage and a third wheel, all that you would expect from a rollicking good opera in fact. The Parisian opera house’s resident ‘phantom’ (Joshua Robson) falls madly in love with the young soprano Christine (Georgina Hopson), who becomes fascinated by his complexities and charm until she realises he’s no phantom, but rather a deformed man called Eric (yep), his face so disfigured it “earned a mother’s fear and loathing”. Enter opera patron and love rival Raoul (Callum Francis) and the real argy bargy begins.

It’s Robson’s first lead role and he excels. His rich baritone exerts the frightening intimidation we expect from the domineering phantom, (when his disembodied voice booms, you can’t help but nervously scan your surrounds), yet is equally anguished with emotion and gentleness when wooing his beloved Christine. Hopson is also remarkable, her staggering vocals combined with her raw, effortless empathy, peel back layer after layer to reveal her desperate inner conflict. The chemistry between the pair is tangible, a director’s dream for Simon Phillips, who is not only dealing with a vast, open stage in this brand new production, but double the cast. No matter the quality of the performances, if they weren’t backed by meticulous staging and clever concise choreography (Simone Salt) all sense of intimacy and cohesiveness would have been lost.

Naomi Johns is deliciously dramatic and imperious as the precious prima donna Carlotta, with Maree Johnson, fresh from the Broadway production as formidable ballet mistress Madam Giry, who harbours a mysterious relationship with the Phantom, just as dependable. It’s a character far and successfully removed from her original role as Christine in the original Sydney production.

There’s no doubt set and costume designer, Gabriela Tylesova, had an extraordinary task bringing this iconic production outside and under the scrutiny of Lloyd Webber himself (he popped into a rehearsal unannounced and attended Opening Night), but she well and truly met it. The fabric, the colour, the detail and the sheer sashay of the costumes are sublime, while the set is offset by a magnificent sweeping staircase, the perfect platform for the whole cast, sans the Phantom, to come together for The Masquerade. 

Throw in a ring of fire, flying fireballs, a floating gondolier, that infamous chandelier scene and some Foti Fireworks and this is an extravaganza you don’t want to miss.

TAKE ME BACK TO THE WHAT’S ON HOME PAGE PLEASE, MO

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