REVIEW: The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera has come to Melbourne’s State Theatre, The Art Centre – and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic, let alone someone who didn’t rank it in their top 10 favourite musicals.

Thus, the expectation is higher than your average show. Succeed, and you have a hit on your hands. Fail, and there would be outroar in the streets!

Luckily, the 2022-2023 production falls in the former.

Based on the novel Le Fantome de l’Opera by Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera tells the tale of a disfigured musical genius who haunts the Paris Opera House. Mesmerised by the talents and beauty of the young soprano Christine, the Phantom lures her as his protégé and falls fiercely in love with her. But when Christine’s childhood sweetheart Raoul comes back into her life, the Phantom’s obsession sets the scene for a dramatic turn of events where jealousy, madness and passions collide.

Where this production excels is in its overall design. Paul Brown’s set design is grand in both design and scale. The stage is littered with intricate details to create interest during every scene. Even something as mundane as an office space becomes a visual feast for the eyes. Utilising the grandeur of the State Theatre, the sets often take up the entire stage from right to left and top to bottom. It’s at its most impressive during the decent into the Phantom’s subterranean liar or during the theatrical performance scenes where the stage mirrors the theatre’s multi-stories.

Creative lighting and shadow play by Paule Constable here too plays an important part in the story. When the Phantom is first unmasked, his shadow is distorted and twisted, reflecting his monstrous and grotesque appearance. It’s subtle, rich and creates depth. The use of shadows also makes the Phantom appear other worldly, almost like a supernatural being, or an opera ghost, if you will.

Importantly too is Maria Bjornson’s extravagant costume design which adds texture and luxe, exemplified brilliantly in Scott Ambler’s masterful choreography especially during Masquerade.

One cannot go past its iconic score. The Phantom of the Opera remains one of the biggest musical theatre albums ever, boasting recognisable tracks such as The Music Of The Night, All I Ask Of You and the title song. In terms of credits, the music is by Webber, lyrics by Charles Hart with additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe and orchestrations by both David Cullen and Webber.

After supporting roles in Hairspray, Cats and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Josh Piterman comes into his own as the Phantom. While none will ever compare to the likes of Michael Ball, Anthony Warlow or other performers who have donned the white mask before him, Piterman’s incredible vocal delivery is up there with the greats. He flits between menacing force to utter madness to tortured soul to with such ease, which reinforces the strength of brilliant casting.

Accomplished performer, Amy Manford has played Christine Daaé both in London’s West End and in Athens, Greece, and plays the role intuitively from inside out. Her vocal range is impressive and her tone pure and clear and is paired beautifully with Blake Bowden’s charismatic and charming Raoul.

Joining them is a talented ensemble cast including David WhitneyAndy Morton, Jayde Westaby, Mietta White, Elliot Baker, Anton Berezin, Laura Bianchi-Bishop, Eleanor Blythman, Gavin Brown, Ben Clark, Bridget Costello, Andrew Dunne, Lewis Francis, Christina Gibbs, Claudia Hastings, Olivia Jenkins, Daniel Koek, Naomi Livingston, Josephine Lonergan, Aaron Lynch, Imogen-Faith Malfitano, Kayleigh Marven, Emma McFarlane, Lachlan O’Brien, Brittany Page, Edward Smith, Anna Stephens, Tod Strike, Troy Sussman, Raphael Wong, Jack Wunsch and Elisha Zion Lee.

If I was to complain, I found the music of the 27-piece orchestra to be too loud. When the characters are singing on top of each other especially, it was difficult to distinguish what anyone was saying thus making vital character parts lost.

There also seemed to be a disconnect between those trained in musical theatre and those with operatic backgrounds, most notable in Giuseppina Grech (Carlotta Giudicelli) and Paul Tabone (Ubaldo Piangi)’s deliveries. Perhaps I just don’t speak “opera”, but I struggled to understand what either were singing about for most of the show. I am familiar with Grech’s previous work, being a fan of Opera Australia’s 2005 production of HMS Pinafore with David Hobson, and there too I found it difficult, but given her vast accomplishments and experience, I put this down to me. However, the influence of Opera Australia, who is a co-partner in this reimaged production, may also be at fault. After all, despite its title, The Phantom of the Opera, after all, is traditionally a musical, not an opera.

I also, admittedly, have never understood the appeal of The Phantom of the Opera. Maybe it’s just not my personal thing, and that’s okay, everyone has their favourites, but I can’t now say I’m converted. I’ve seen the musical live once before and I have no memory of it, which is always a bad sign.

The 2004 film starring Gerald Butler and Emmy Rossum, as directed by Joel Schumacher, is described as a romantic drama, and while I agree with the latter, I struggle with the idea of it being a romance, as I find the Phantom to be creepy, obsessive, controlling and anything but romantic. I’m drawn to Christine and Raoul’s relationship personally.

I read an interesting article by Natasha Alvar on Cultured Vultures who says, we, the audience, “root for the Phantom because, in him, we see our own brokenness and flaws, and deep down, feel the echoing fear and belief that no one will love us if they saw us for who we truly are.” While she gives good argument to why the Phantom is the why he is and justifies his actions, that doesn’t mean I find it any more enjoyable to watch.

Perhaps I’m just missing the point… or maybe I’d just rather watch a simple musical like Urinetown on Chapel Off Chapel, which, by the way, I truly loved!

However, considering the film has a 7.2 rating on IMDB and I have struggled to get through it the numerous times I’ve tried to watch it as well as everyone bar one person that I have spoken to has confessed their love for the live stage show, I realise I’m in the minority.

There is a lot to love here (as well as dissect) and I do believe those who adore the musical will love this current production, and that should be celebrated. And people like me, who don’t, can at least marvel at its no-expense-has-been-spared, high production value.

Season Details

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until February 5, 2023
Tickets and information from phantomoftheopera.com.au

Photos by Daniel Boud/Supplied

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