Sunday 2 December 2012

The Mikado at the London Coliseum

ENO - The Mikado
credit Chris Christodoulou
After a crisply sparkling account of the overture, from David Parry and the English National Opera orchestra, the curtain opened on Stefanos Lazarides dazzling white, Grand Hotel set. Jonathan Miller's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado was back, with a strong cast which mixed innocence and experience. The production is 26 years old and looking as good as ever, and celebrating 25 years of Richard Suart's association with the role of Ko Ko. We saw the opening night (Saturday December 1), though the cast had already performed a matinee that afternoon.

It was good to see Robert Murray still performing Nanki Poo after doing Jephtha and the Steersman. Perhaps the voice lacked certain freedom at the very top, but he produced a beautifully turned phrase with words nicely pointed. Murray's tone was well nourished but he never over sung, balancing voice and words well. His opening solo, A wand'ring minstrel I, was captivating, and he caught the production's 1920's ethos nicely. His Yum Yum was Mary Bevan, who is currently an ENO Harewood Artist. Bevan made an ideal Yum-Yum, pert without being too knowing, a lovely clear tone and enough depth of character to cope with her solo, The sun whose rays, in act 2. Though having to perform the aria as a concert number sitting on the piano rather takes the dramatic sting from the words.

Both Murray and Bevan had to do cut glass accents, which they both managed gallantly. They made a delightful couple, managing to make an impression in spite of the rather frenetic activity that the production throws into the background.

Richard Suart's Ko-Ko was a thing of marvels, full of quirks and ticks that the artist has clearly developed but which never seem quite routine. His Ko-Ko is clearly a monster, and we love it. Suart knows just quite how to put over the music, with a fine balance between word and music, sometimes singing on a bare thread. The 'little list' was rather over done, with a tempo that seemed not so much slow as laboured and a series of modern references which sound, to my ears, horribly contrived but which went down well with the audience.

Donald Maxwell was a superb Poo-Bah, finely dignified to the nth degree, impressively sung and with his customary fine comic timing. I had expected him to be rather more ebullient in the character, but instead he used his restraint as an comic tool, complete with a refined Scottish accent. A masterclass in how the role can be played intelligently.

David Stout, gamely suffering under a Northern accent which someone thought would be funny, was a musical Pish-Tush, showing a feeling for comic timing and pointing of words which indicated that he has great potential as Poo-Bah.

Richard Angas also has a long association with the production, having sung the role of The Mikado at the first run. He plays the role, as conceived by the production, to a tee. H is well mannered and rather put-upon with the manic side of the role rather tamped down; its just not quite what I want from the role.

Yvonne Howard is frankly too young and glamorous looking to be Katisha, but she showed a fine sense of comic timing and was lovely in her serious solo in act 2, Alone and yet alive, joining Suart's Ko-ko for a brilliant duet. Her warmly attractive voice lacks the simple heft in the lower register to make moments like the Mikado's entrance in act 2 work perfectly, but she responded with intelligence, charm and a clear sense of humour.

Rachael Lloyd made a strong Pitti-Sing, moving from the delightful Three little maids, with Fiona Canfield's Peep-Bo, to stronger dramatic and musical involvement. The trio The Criminal died, with Suart and Maxwell, was well balanced with Lloyd showing no sign of giving ground to the two older comic talents.

David Newman in the silent role of Katisha's pilot, accompanist and unrequited lover, managed to upstage virtually everyone, which was probably the point.

The main problem with Jonathan Miller's production is that it doesn't seem to quite trust Gilbert and Sullivan's opera, so that Miller throws everything at it. The result is a great show, which the audience enjoyed immensely. But having maids tottering along in the background under piles of laundry whilst the hero and heroine are singing is hardly supportive, most people will remember the maids rather than the soloists. And the tap dance number during The threatened cloud has passed away in both finales, is just plain distracting and incongruous. But then Miller seems to have been determined to turn The Mikado into The Boyfriend.

That said, Elaine Tyler-Hall's revival (with Stephen Speed reviving Anthony van Laast choreogrpahy) was a brilliantly living and dramatic thing, not just an ossified routine despite the productions age. (I saw D'Oyly Carte's 1975 revival with the great John Reed as Ko-Ko, and here practice seemed to have virtually ossified). The production was highly popular with the audience and remains a jolly good show.

I just don't think that it is the best way to perform The Mikado. Nowadays professional productions of Gilbert and Sullivan are relatively rare, so for many people this production will be their introduction to the genre. The publicity talks about the way Miller satirises English mores, but I'm not so certain. The Grand Hotel/Boyfriend conception is certainly brilliantly funny, and superbly carried out by ENO, but underneath I just can't help feel that he is sending up The Mikado itself.

How would I prefer it done? Well, in the 1980's New Sadlers Wells Opera, I think, did a brilliant production which was set in the Oriental department of Liberty's at the time of the opera's being written. It was a concept which brought together all of the things which Gilbert and Sullivan were sending up. Addressing the work's satire of English manners and the obsession for orientalism. No-one, however, has addressed the rather interesting Pirandello-esque elements Gilbert introduces into the libretto from the opening chorus (We are gentlemen Japan); these layers, with the singers knowing they are characters in a stage drama, might be a lively source of deconstruction.

From a musical point of view, ENO's performance was exemplary with David Parry showing just how to give due weight to Sullivan's music without overbalancing the performance. ENO Chorus and Orchestra seemed to be in great form.

The enthusiastic audience seemed to be rather a different make up to the regular Coliseum crowd, which makes one understand why the production continues to come back as it does. Many audience members seemed to have dressed up in black and white to complement the production.

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