Sunday, 8 September 2013

Fun and Imagination - Co-Opera Co's The Mikado

Llio Evans, Georgina Stalbow and Susanne Holmes in The Mikado, Co-Opera Co, 2013
Llio Evans, Georgina Stalbow and Susanne Holmes
Co-Opera Co's second opera in their season at the Hackney Empire continued the Japanese theme with Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado (played in tandem with Madama Butterfly), though James Bonas's production emphasised the work's fundamentally English qualities rather than any notional ideas of Japonaiserie. Designed by Carl Davies with choreography by Ewan Jones, the production was set in an Opium Den in East London and formed a drug induced fantasy of three of the denizens. The concept was not pushed too far, instead Bonas used it to freely mix Japanese and English references, recognising that the opera makes fun of English habits. We caught the second performance on Saturday 7 September, with a cast including Martin Nelson, David Jones, Llio Evans, Tristan Stocks Georgina Stalbow, Thomas Asher, Owain Browne, Sandra Porter and Susanne Holmes, conducted by John Andrews.

Davies' set was an amazing collection of bric-a-brac with the letters spelling Mikado embedded in it (they lit up at key moments). The cast were all dressed in English 19th century style clothes. The piece was performed with just nine singers, in an act of amazing dexterity the soloists doubled as the chorus, wearing oriental half-masks when acting as chorus members. It says much for the imaginativeness of Bonas's direction, and the vivacity of the performances that he elicited from the singers, that you hardly noticed the lack of a separate chorus.

Operetta is difficult, and it is good that a company like Co-Opera Co, responsible for coaching and training young singers, is addressing the issue. Words become of paramount importance, and it is essential that they are delivered comprehensibly and idiomatically, both sung and spoken, and that the result is funny and does not seem to be hard work. It is far harder than it looks and many companies entirely fail to get the style right. Here Bonas, who trained as an actor before moving into directing, had clearly worked very hard with the cast all of whom delivered their words in exemplary style. More than that, they got the general style of the piece right so that despite (or because of the updating), the general result had the right combination of vivacity, silliness and pathos that is essential Gilbert and Sullivan.

As a student, in the 1980's, I saw the D'Oyly Carte with the great John Reed as Ko-Ko, in a production still highly traditional, since then directors have repeatedly tried to 'do something' with the piece, not always successfully. I have to confess that I have never really appreciated Jonathan Miller's tap dancing Grand Hotel version at the London Coliseum, and still have happy memories of a New Sadlers Wells Opera production set in the 19th century Oriental Department of Liberty's store. It was a great relief to find that Bonas's imaginative treatment respected the essentials of the work.

Tristan Stocks made a highly personable Nanki Poo, eager, pleasing and perhaps a bit more knowing than some. Stocks started out as a baritone and his tenor voice has quite a degree of high tension about it, which wasn't ideal for a lyric role like Nanki Poo. But he clearly had a good feel for the music, and there was much to enjoy in his performance.

Llio Evans made a delightful, and rather pert Yum Yum. All three maids were dressed in extremely sexy versions of Victorian gear and it was clear that all three were very knowing and not at all innocent. Evan's solo in act two was beautifully done and nicely poised. Susanne Holmes was an equally pert delight as Pitti-Sing, who gets her own solo moments and here rather caught the Mikado's eye (it was clear that when they went to lunch rather more than a mere meal took place). With Georgina Stalbow making up the trio as Peep-Bo, they made a delightful trio. Their singing of Three little maids was great fun and, of course, here it was preceded by the chorus Comes a train of little ladies, here also sung as a lovely trio.

Martin Nelson, one of the two more experienced singers performing in the production, was a finely lecherous Mikado. Wearing plus-fours, the role was clearly modelled on the music hall entertainers, such as Max Miller, and music-hall was one of the influences which Bonas mixed into the production with some numbers clearly staged as music-hall numbers. This included the Mikado's solo in act two, which worked well and Nelson was both funny and admirably clear in his delivery, though I did miss the laugh between the verses.

David Jones (a last minute replacement, though you could not tell) was a cadaverous Ko Ko with an alarming mockney accent. A hapless figure, with a turn for physical comedy, he reminded me at times of Frank in the TV series Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, particularly the way Jones managed to combine comedy with pathos. His insignia of office was a giant pair of scissors, a rather neat touch. Jones's list song in the first act was neatly updated and delivered with crisp aplomb.

Owain Browne was an elegantly overweening Poo-Bah, with Brown clearly relishing every one of the character's idiotically overblown phrases. Thomas Asher was equally entertaining as Pish Tush, delivering his act one solo with great character. And both singers formed a characterful part of the ensemble in the opera.

Sandra Porter (the other more experienced singer in the cast) was a truly alarming figure as Katisha, wearing black and towering over everyone on stilts, using fluorescent tubes as walking sticks. She was a fantasy nightmare figure rather than the conventional ugly old woman, an interesting and imaginative take on the character. David Jones's wooing of her in Tit Willow was both funny and touching and Katisha was humanised by removing her stilts, another neat touch.

This was a very physical production and Ewan Jones's choreography required the singers not jut to dance but to do all manner of things, such as twirling flags. All entered into the spirit with great vivacity making the show lively and entertaining and, frankly, it was a joy to see and hear The threatened cloud has passed away without the addition of tap dancing waiters.

The small band, playing a reduced orchestration for just 13 players, was hardworking and characterful. Whilst music in Gilbert and Sullivan must take its place besides the words, there is still plenty of scope and the band gave us some fine solo moments, under John Andrew's live direction. Andrews kept things moving and ensured that the music did not settle into that four-square jog-trot which can be so fatal to Sullivan's music.

The joy of this production was that it brought out the sheer joie de vivre and fun of the piece whilst making clear Gilbert's satirical barbs. Bonas and Andrews drew a fine ensemble performance from the cast. Despite the well known solos, The Mikado is very music an ensemble piece and her it was clear that the nine hard-working singers not only worked well together but clearly were having fun. And so were we.

The production tours to Rhyl, Croydon, Bury St Edmunds and Hastings this Autumn, more information from the Co-Opera Co website.

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