Theatre review: The Phantom of the Opera

This iteration of the classic music theatre has some thoughtful changes.

The reimagined production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera currently playing at the Sydney Opera House is still spectacular – but it does depart from the original staging quite dramatically. So, it is important for audiences to leave any past experiences at the door and open their minds to a new interpretation. If they do, there are some rare and wonderful treats to be discovered. 

Yes, some elements of the epic spectacle have been abandoned, but there are visual treats aplenty with some wonderful details and character interpretations that bring their own reward – once you stop mourning the loss of all those floating candles. The publicity tells us it’s ‘bigger and better than before’, and while it may not actually appear bigger on the Joan Sutherland stage, there are some choices that have infinitely improved upon the original direction for this new century.

Phantom of the Opera has been around for over 30 years, and it is certainly time for another take on one of the most popular and enduring works of modern music theatre.  

It is unlikely many readers will be unfamiliar with this story, but for the benefit of those newcomers, ‘the Phantom haunts the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House. He’s man and mystery, a deformed genius. And in Christine Daaé, he’s found his angel of music: the young woman he would make a star. But how many lives will he sacrifice to make the music of the night?’

This version is less romantic than the original – but perhaps more real. The character of Christine is stronger and more confident. Less the ‘heroine-victim’ and more sure of herself as she finds her way through the expectations of the controlling men around her. She’s more than happy to slap Raoul when he’s being unsupportive, or challenge the memory of her dead father in her big Act 2 solo.

Amy Manford balances the new acting requirements of the role with ease, and her pure vocal tone lends an exquisite clarity to the vocals, translucent as fine crystal when in her upper register. It’s a lovely new interpretation, and perhaps the core strength of this new version. 

It feels like many of the new choices subtly reference where the characters progress to in the sequel Love Never Dies. Blake Bowden’s Raoul is not as strong a hero figure as he once was. Bowden is confident and has some fine vocal moments, but the character becomes quite petulant and controlling at times, and he certainly deserves his slap from Christine in Act 2.

The chemistry between them is erratic and it’s easy to see the self-absorbed drunk he will become later in the sequel. Hey if Marvel can have a universe – why not Phantom! But in the spirit of full disclosure, I have always been on the ‘Team Phantom’ side of this awkward threesome.

These new character revelations continue with Josh Pitterman’s impressive Phantom. It’s a return to the more fragile, but no less moving, vocal tone of the original. This musical is haunted in Australia by its own ‘opera ghost’ of Anthony Warlow’s magnificent performance.

But this production chooses a different path for the character. This Phantom is lighter, more emotionally damaged, and probably sitting somewhere on the spectrum, unable to process how people behave in the real world. At last we are able to believe Christine’s final kiss and (spoiler coming!) the reason why he cannot finally imprison her. Pitterman really comes into his own in this final scene, his vocals swelling to full strength, and it makes sense of all that has gone before. 

The highly experienced supporting cast and ensemble feature some fine comic work to balance all that angst. In particular Paul Tabone delivers a delightfully funnier Piangi, and Guiseppina Grech relishes the excesses of Carlotta. The orchestra is sumptuous and the ensemble sound rewardingly lush. 

Read: Exhibition review: Fantastical Worlds

No doubt a great deal will be discussed about which version is ‘better’. It is much more productive to accept them as ‘different’. Paul Brown’s set is an incredible technical marvel and captures more of the intimate backstage spaces of the Paris Opera house. Yes, the staircase has gone but the choreography has been expanded, and the statues are exceedingly impressive. The descent into the catacombs had the audience gasping, and there are pyrotechnics for days! It is certainly not short on spectacle – it’s just of a different kind.

That brings me to my only reservation for this production – the decision to retain the original costumes. Despite their exquisite beauty, it seems counterintuitive to still reference the original staging when you are steering your audience in a new direction. Several key costumes were changed anyway, notably in the ‘Masquerade’ number, so perhaps that decision was retrospectively found to be not the wisest. Give us more reinvention!

I had the privilege of discussing the performance with both a seven-time groupie of the show and someone who had never seen it before. Both revealed they had been grinning with delight from ear to ear during the performance.  Overall, it does feel like this production moves the work more from an opera into a musical. It’s lighter, pacier, more accessible and definitely more real. And for that, the bravery of the creative team should be applauded. 

Leave all thoughts of the world you knew before – and be haunted by a new kind of Phantom. 

The Phantom of the Opera
Opera Australia and the Really Useful Group
In association with Cameron Mackintosh

Sydney Opera House, Joan Sutherland Theatre
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Charles Hart
Book: Richard Stilgoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber

Original Director: Laurence Connor
Australian Direction: Seth Skylar-Heyn
New Scenic Design: Paul Brown
Original costumes: Maria Björnson
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Sound Designer: Mick Potter
Choreography: Scott Ambler

Cast includes Josh Pitterman, Amy Manford, Blake Bowden, Andy Morton, David Whitney, Guiseppina Grech, Jayde Westaby, Paul Tabone, Mietta White
Tickets $89 – $299

The Phantom of the Opera will be performed in Sydney until 16 October then tour to Melbourne from 30 October 2022.

Dennis Clements is a NIDA Acting graduate and has a BA focused on Literature, Theatre and Journalism. He won the Theatre prize in his graduation year from Curtin University in WA. He has extensive leading role performance credits in both professional and community based companies, and has directed numerous productions for Bankstown Theatre Company and Ashfield Musical society. He is a registered Marriage Celebrant if you want to get hitched, and has also reviewed for Australian Stage online theatre magazine for several years.