English National Opera – Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado

Gilbert & Sullivan
The Mikado (or, The Town of Titipu) – Comic Opera in Two Acts [Libretto by W. S. Gilbert, music by Sir Arthur Sullivan]

The Mikado of Japan – Richard Angas
Nanki-Poo – Robert Murray
Ko-Ko – Richard Suart
Pooh-Bah – Graeme Danby
Pish-Tush – Richard Burkhard
Yum-Yum – Sarah Tynan
Pitti-Sing – Anna Grevelius
Peep-Bo – Fiona Canfield
Katisha – Frances McCafferty
Katisha’s pilot, accompanist and unrequited lover – David Newman

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Wyn Davies

Jonathan Miller / David Ritch – Original / Revival Director
Stefanos Lazaridis – Set designer
Sue Blane – Costume designer
Davy Cunningham / Martin Doone – Original / Revival lighting
Anthony van Laast / Stephen Speed – Original / Revival choreography

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 2 February, 2008
Venue: The Coliseum, London

This is the twelfth revival of a production first seen in 1986. Its qualities are, by now, pretty well-known – it was televised during its original run – the chief one being the placing of the action in the lobby ofa hotel (the set in glaring white) and updating the action to the 1920s.This, of course, completely eliminates Gilbert’s original intentions; his own production was most carefully researched in terms of appropriatecostumes, movement, decor and so forth.Furthermore, the idea of the English laughing at themselves and theirfoibles via a Japanese scenario is dispensed with. Instead, we have acollection of English ‘toffs’ – with exaggerated ‘upper class’ accents – presenting the convoluted story of Gilbert’s imagining. There are,incidentally, virtually no alterations to the libretto, so thespecifically Japanese moments – such as the chorus heralding the arrivalof the Mikado – have a tendency to appear incongruous in this context.

But if one accepts the premise of Jonathan Miller’s conception (and Dr Miller waspresent on this first-night revival to receive hearty acclaim at the end), then one can enjoy thisview of the piece which might be summed up by the title of the Christmasepisode of the BBC sitcom “The Good Life” (Richard Briers, et al) – “Silly … but it’s fun”.Furthermore, musically speaking, this was generally a first-rateperformance with a strong and committed cast seemingly being careful, to not go ‘over the top’ with the larks and high spirits.

Sullivan’s music needs real singing, and he would surely have beendelighted by the cast here assembled.Robert Murray’s mellifluous tenor was a consistent joy – ‘A wand’ringminstrel, I’ proving both touching at the start and close andinvigorating in the central march-like passage.During this song – and at frequent places elsewhere – the cast is joined by a troupe of dancers executing (as revived) Anthony van Laast’s livelychoreography. As rather obviously ‘camp’ and rouge-faced bellboys or fidgety chambermaids (who ‘squeak’ during the opening chorus of Act Two), the dancers’ contribution will either delight or irritate – or both. Certainly one could have done without the noisy tap-dancing which added an unintended percussive element to the close of both acts as did some spurious bass drum and cymbal additions emanating from the pit.

Ko-Ko is the ‘star’ of the show and Richard Suart plays the part for all it is worth, though the frequent deployment of ‘funny’ voices in the dialogue is no aid to defining characters, nor did it alwaysenable the minutiae of the sometimes-labyrinthine plot to be conveyedwith ideal clarity.His singing is still secure, though less strong at the top than of old, and his ‘little list’ song, replete with topical references to a disgraced Tory MP and David Beckham – amongst others – was hilarious.

Richard Burkhard – attired as a clergyman at leisure – and the grey-suited Graeme Danby (the majority of the other costumes being blackor white or a mixture of the two) were suitable foils to Suart and sang with strength and admirable clarity of enunciation – a feature of thecast as a whole and one which would have commended itself to thedemanding Gilbert.

The girls – both solo and chorus – were delightfully pert. Sarah Tynanwas absolutely ravishing in ‘The sun whose rays’ – so much so that onecould almost forgive the somewhat excessive rubato deployed here.Elsewhere, she was sprightly and sang with ideal brightness.

Richard Angas is a survivor from the original cast and presents apaternal, kindly personage, quite out of keeping with the Gothic pronouncements on forms of execution and torture he is enjoined toutter, and his huge appearance in vast baggy trousers and jacket canonly be described as ridiculous.

With the character of Katisha, if one thinks too deeply about it, onecan detect the ‘edge’ in Gilbert’s humour which was to take a decidedlydarker turn in his final collaborations with Sullivan. The ‘mocking’ ofan amply-built middle-aged lady who is described in the most unflatteringterms, and the pathetic nature of her infatuation for a much younger man(Nanki-Poo) – and, for that matter, the middle-aged Ko-Ko’s lustingafter someone who is supposed to be just leaving school (Yum-Yum) – are not terribly pleasant notions. Sullivan did not like theKatisha ‘type’, but nevertheless some of the music he wrote – such asthe song in the second act – invites the audience to respond withsympathy to a character otherwise presented rather unkindly by thelibrettist.Frances McCafferty invested what dignity she could in a part that isnot well-served either by its author or this production. Some rather uglylow notes aside, she sang well and was at her best in the morereflective moments.

But, overall, one can sit back and revel in Gilbert’s absurdity as viewed by Jonathan Miller, and if there are visual distractions, then the subtlety and invention of Sullivan’s score may be appreciated on itsown terms. There is often a hint of melancholy about this music – as there is in that by Johann Strauss II – which is quite poignant andproof that laughter and tears can be very close allies.Certainly it was very well played and sung and tempos are largelyappropriate.With English National Opera’s current policy of promoting British opera, could consideration be given to some of the lesser-known pieces from the G & S canon and – dare one suggest it – a staging of Sullivan’s grand-opera “Ivanhoe”?

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