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Camp Mikado

18 Jun

The Sasha Regan All-Male Mikado, which I saw at the Theatre Royal in Brighton on 17 June in the evening, is set in a camp in the wood in the late 1940s as a group of scouts – well, I’m not sure what they’re there for, but a bit of teasing and bullying and some balletic dancing, apparently – turn into a performance of the Mikado.  It’s much, much less clear or appropriate than their HMS Pinafore last year but you forget that pretty soon.

There is barely a nod to Japan in the costumes – khakhi shorts and shirts and you miss all of Gilbert’s social satire.  What you do have is a very funny, very clever version of the piece that manages to get the overwhelming bulk of the spirit of the piece spot on.  As ever, it’s done simply – the baggy shorts turned up for the ‘female’ part of the chorus give them a quite convincing and very funny South Pacific-ish look.  Katisha comes in on a bicycle with a series of straw hats to give her height and a string bag.  There are lots of good sight gags around the tents.

Above all, Sasha Regan’s direction pays attention to the words.  David McKechnie as Ko Ko does his speech to Katisha as intelligently and wittily as I’ve heard it and makes “Tit-Willow” the gently comic number that it is.  The Madrigal is really funny and Alan Richardson’s Yum Yum gets a laugh out “The sun whose rays”.  In Gilbert and Sullivan there’s always a tension between the emphasis you place on Sullivan’s very serious music and on Gilbert’s witty text.  I’ve always felt that the mastery of the operas lies in that tension.  Here Gilbert unquestionably won, with the words clearly under-cutting the seriousness of the music.  Above all, the dialogue was sensitively and thoughtfully put across and you could hear pretty much every word.

Musically, it was decent and you do have to make allowances for men singing falsetto and, often, not quite managing it.  The noises Mr Richardson made reaching for his top notes in the ensembles really were not pleasant and rather points out the limits of an all-male approach to G&S particularly as the operas get more ambitious.  You also have to make allowances for people who are not trained opera singers and who play about with note values (and notes) rather more than we’re used to.  It didn’t worry me hugely in the context of a really witty, lively performance but don’t go expecting the sort of singing you would get from an opera company.

The cast was excellent.  Mr McKechnie makes an excellent Ko Ko – alert, cheap and slight sleazy with a funny updated (but not topical) little list.  Ross Finnie could have been even more Scottish as Pooh Bah and, maybe, was a bit too understated.  James Waud was a super Mikado and I loved the way “My object all sublime” got faster as the it went on (super choreography for the chorus).  Alex Weatherhill made a large Katisha who got both the sympathy and the monstrosity of the woman (though I don’t think she needed to be pumping up her bike during ‘”Hearts do not break”) and, again, the dialogue with Ko Ko after that was outstanding (and, again, some really lovely, understated choreography for “There is beauty in the bellow of the blast”).

Richard Munday made a sensible Nanki Poo and, top notes apart, Mr Richardson was a very good, funny Yum Yum. The ensemble worked incredibly hard and made it all look easy and fun. Richard Baker on the piano did an excellent job.

Don’t go expecting a lavish, traditional Mikado, but I’d strongly recommend this clever, intelligent and very slick performance to anyone who likes the operas, particularly if they prefer Gilbert to Sullivan.



ETO’s Patience

11 Mar

Patience may not be the best known of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas but it’s near the top of my list of favourites and it was great to see that English Touring Opera had chosen it as their first ever G&S piece.  I caught its second performance at the Hackney Empire on 10th March.

It’s an interesting piece in their canon.  It’s probably the most directly satirical of a particular idea.  It’s also one of the few without an obvious romantic couple and, for that reason, may be probably Gilbert’s finest libretto.  You don’t have to have seen Topsy Turvy to suspect that he probably had a deep cynicism about romantic love and this, piece, with barely a sympathetic character in it enable him to poke fun at ideas, at pomposity at self-indulgence – which is what he did best.

I’m very, very fond of Sullivan’s score.  There’s a lot of really beautiful music here: from the simply gorgeous opening interesting to that rather gorgeous sextet, I hear the soft note of the echoing voice, and the teasing Long years ago, it’s all glorious stuff.  Perhaps, however, it shows more than most the way in which Sullivan undermines Gilbert’s satire by producing music that is absolutely serious.  I find this tension one of the most interesting things about their partnership.

This was a very good performance of it, indeed.  It was a joy to read Timothy Burkes’s appreciation of the score in his programme note.  He conducted it with love, perhaps with a slightly gentler edge to it than, say, Mackerras or even Isidore Godfrey for the old D’Oyly Carte, but the music sounded as good as it should.

And the cast was excellent.  I hugely enjoyed Lauren Zolezzi’s Patience.  As the one individual with anything like common sense, she caught the intelligence of the character and sang really well: a lovely light soprano who can sing words with taste and spirit – probably the best Patience that I’ve heard.  Bradley Travis played Bunthorne as the heartless, self-indulgent popinjay that he is andmade the most of his arias.  Ross Ramgobin as Grosvenor gave one of the best acting performances that I’ve in Gilbert and Sullivan. His way with the dialogue was incredibly assured and he gave an object lesson in how to make intelligible and funny without guying it.  I was slightly less taken by his voice – there’s a bit of work to be done there.

Valerie Reid made an excellent Lady Jane – notably older than the other ladies, with the right wry sense of humour and she had a nice way with her double bass in Silvered is the raven hair – is there a better example of Sullivan ignoring the sheer nastiness of Gilbert’s text?  Gaynor Keeble was a strong Lady Angela, seconded admirably by Suzanne Fischer as Saphir (Ella was cut – no great loss).

Andrew Slater was as good as you’d hope as Colonel Calverley – managing the two patter songs really well and maintaining just the right element of bemused outsrage.  Aled Hall didn’t make as much of the Duke as he could have done and I’ve heard more lyrical singing.  Chorus and orchestra were excellent and this was a really excellent, loving, musical performance.

Liam Steel directed.  It was a firmly traditional production: set in that Victorian/aesthetic/pre-Raphaelite look that, doubtless, Gilbert intended.  I enjoyed the alert direction of the dialogue and the words (even if there were rather more glitches about those than you’d expect at this performance).  There were lots of deft touches (Patience seemed the only person able to lift anything) and there was pelnty of fun with flowers.  This was a production which would not upset anyone who thought that D’Oyly Carte, c. 1960 was the acme of perfection.  And, on its own terms it was really enjoyable.  I was smiling throughout and enjoying the opportunity to see the opera again.

And yet I had doubts.  If you’d never seen G&S before, would you think that this was an outstanding example of their wit and satire?  Did the business and moves not look a bit like what you’d get from a very good school or amateur performance?  There are enough example of pretension and fatuousness in our time for this piece to have much greater resonance than it did here.  You can also, I think, be a bit more outrageous with You hold yourself like this. I enjoyed it because I love the piece and, I suspect, there are enough people  who feel the same way for this to be a success.  But don’t you need a bit more; a bit more flair and brilliance to persuade people that this isn’t a museum piece of limited interest.  I was sitting next to a ten or eleven year old boy with his parents.  I really wondered if there was enough there to engage him  (I don’t think there was).  A more modern approach might have been even more fun.

That’s the only cavil.  On its own terms, it’s a lovely, intelligent, musically delightful performance. Anyone who enjoys G&S, let alone Patience, will love it and I do hope ETO decide to do some more.  We’re crying out for Iolanthe.






All-male Pinafore

25 Jun

I was a bit sniffy when I saw Sasha Regan’s all-male version of Pirates of Penzance in Brighton last year.  That didn’t stop me going to see her HMS Pinafore when it arrived here this year – I got to the Saturday matinee on 25th June.  It was a huge amount better.

Pinafore is one of my favourites.  There isn’t a weak number and Gilbert’s dialogue is short but absolutely to the point.  It’s still very, very funny and doesn’t begin to outstay its welcome.

Regan’s production has a bit more point to it than last year’s.  It’s as if a group of modern sailors are staging the opera, improvising costumes and getting involved in the piece.  It’s a nice framing device and explains limited props and costumes.

The direction is a whole lot better than Pirates.  The dialogue is done better and the jokes and staging a huge improvement.  There are some lovely jokes – a Chariots of Fire moment for He is an Englishman and a Titanic moment for Josephine.  It helps that Michael Burgen (very funny, very nasty, very good) as Sir Joseph is about a foot shorter than anyone else.  There’s some fine choreography and some good fitness exercises for what is obviously a very well-trained crew.  A nice in-joke is that Captain Corcoran definitely is not in the same league.  There some nice lunacy around the sisters, cousins and aunts and the escape in Act II.

There’s also a serious element.  I don’t think that I’ve seen the Josephine/Rackstraw taken so seriously – making it both more funny and more touching.  It’s helped by a really excellent performance by Tom Senior as Rackstraw – understated, nicely sung and taking the thing seriously.  He’s matched by Ben Irish’s very funny Josephine, which is also sung really well.

Neil Moors makes a rather thick Captain Corcoran, David McKechnie stays the right side of camp and makes an almost touching Buttercup, Richard Russell Edwards has a lovely time camping up Hebe – just right here.  James Waud is rather fine as Dick Deadeye and the ensemble works hard and is very, very easy on the eye.

Certainly not a full house, but it was extremely enthusiastic and I thought that this performance was more fun, more true to the original and had more life than many of more lavish, better resourced productions that I’ve seen.  I recommend it.

Scottish Mikado

19 Jun

Following the rather good Pirates of Penzance a couple of years ago, Scottish Opera have moved on to The Mikado – the first time they’ve produced it – and, again toured to it to some English venues.  I caught the performance at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on 18th June.  The reviews had been rather discouraging but it was nice and reassuring to have a full house.

It actually wasn’t half bad.  Martin Lloyd-Evans uses Japanese images – lacquer boxes, sliding doors, the great wave for his sets.  The costumes are Victorian English with Japanese elements.  It looks good.  He has some lovely ideas – the overture includes Ko-Ko doing a failed sawing the a body in half trick; Nanki-Poo has a bank of instruments around his person; Katisha is a Miss Havisham figure, the Mikado in full military uniform.  He treats Tit-Willow as a comedy number with a puppet bird, which nicely avoids it being over- sentimental and he catches the engaging silliness of the piece.  He uses the words and the music – I don’t think I’ve seen a better directed Madrigal, again turning it into a comic number rather than a slightly tedious piece of Victoriana.  Characterisation was strong and I found myself happily smiling throughout.

My one doubt was that, at times, it looked just a little too traditional and didn’t quite have the panache that it needs.  There were times, particularly with the chorus, where you felt that it needed a touch more energy, a touch more imagination to really catch light – it looked a bit cramped, routines not quite together.  That may have been due to the slightly cramped Theatre Royal stage, but the colourful, never-never-land costumes and archness of the material couldn’t stop me feeling at times that the whole thing looked a bit archaic.  And then you get Gilbert’s jokes about chopping off heads, burying alive and I was reassured – it’s a clever text, the music is wonderful and, in the end the absurdity won out.

It was helped by expert performances.  Richard Suart must have played Ko-Ko more times than anyone else living.  He understands the style but here presented a cockney, wily, rather pathetic figure, completely the star of the show.  His voice is more ragged than it was but it’s fine for this and reminded you that he’s ideally cast in these roles.  He had a splendid double act going with Andrew Shore’s Pooh Bah – catching exactly the right pomposity and singing well.  Ben McAteer was an extraordinarily costume Pish Tush and was rather funny, singing strongly.

As Katisha, Rebecca du Pont Davis doesn’t have the traditional fruity contralto but she made a hilarious and touching figure, singing really well and intelligently.  Stephen Richardson’s Mikado was keenly observed, catching just the right detachment and was probably the funniest Mikado that I’ve seen.

As the love interest, Nicholas Sharratt as Nanki Poo and Rebecca Bottone as Yum Yum were alert, catching the ridiculousness of the situation – that unique mixture of ideals tempered by acute self-interest that Gilbert gets – while reminding you that the original singers of the roles must have been rather good singers: neither managed all the challenges of the role with complete success.

Derek Clark conducted really well: the speeds were spot-on, the orchestral textures clear – you heard the details and kept things together.  The chorus sang nicely even if you wondered whether just a bit of routine might have crept in.  Diction was excellent.  I know the piece more or less by heart, so I didn’t need surtitles – I’m not sure that the audience really did either, but you tended to get laughs at the surtitles and then again with the singers.

I’ve used a few superlatives here. They’re deserved.  This was a lavish, serious, imaginative and hugely enjoyable show and it would be nice if Scottish Opera G&S could become a regular tradition.

All male Pirates

28 May

Another Pirates of Penzance. This time Sasha Regan’s all male production. This has done the rounds of the fringe venues in London and, fresh from an Australian tour, with a number of awards, is on at the Theatre Royal in Brighton for a week. I saw the performance on 27th May with the theatre, at a guess, less than 30% full but with a really enthusiastic audience.

The show was designed for a small fringe theatre. The cast of 18 isn’t of trained singers and, while many are quite experienced in musicals and in similar productions, that’s as far as it goes. Set and costumes were decent but obviously on the cheap. The accompaniment is on a single piano. Was it wise to do it in a theatre the size of Theatre Royal which, let’s face, is about the size for which the piece was written – with its full orchestra, chorus and star singers – and charging the sorts of prices they’d charge for a West End show on tour? I couldn’t help feeling that I might have enjoyed it more if it had been in smaller auditorium. Perhaps also, it was unfair to see it so soon after Mike Leigh’s production at ENO which had a full chorus and orchestra and people with the right voices singing the parts.

Why do G&S with all male casts? Unlike Shakespeare, there’s no point about authenticity and it’s hard to find any sexual politics in the operas that cross-casting like this will illuminate. I suppose there is the practical reason that men can sing falsetto and so it gives you much more scope for doubling roles. The cast created very capable choruses of girls, pirates and police and it would have been difficult to manage all the numbers on this number of a mixed cast. It emphasises the campness and misogyny of it all and it’s funny in a panto-ish sort of way.

The musical accomplishment of the singers is limited. Men singing falsetto can’t call on the sheer power volume that women can. Alan Richardson’s Mabel did a very strong job at the coloratura and sang his/her Act II aria touchingly but without the ease that a decent soprano would. I was conscious of technical effort going on. This applied less to Alex Weatherhill’s Ruth – an easier role of a battle-axe that is half-way (but only half-way) to pantomime dame – who sang very adequately in a lower register and created a convincing figure. Otherwise, this was men having fun camping it up as demure Victorian maidens and it was done amusingly enough.

Musically, we didn’t have a particularly gifted cast. Most were singing in that breathy, Lloyd-Webber-ish style that doesn’t really suit Sullivan’s melodies – phrases are chopped about and you just miss the sound that trained operatic voices can bring. Those glorious double choruses don’t come across. It was given efficient piano accompaniment so there was no need for amplification (thank goodness) but this was a cast, generally, that no more than got away with the music rather than giving much pleasure.

I felt that Sasha Regan’s production didn’t quite trust the text enough. The pilot/pirate confusion is clear enough from the words and their setting without any further mugging about it being needed. The lyrics weren’t always put across as clearly as they might be: Miles Weston didn’t really sing the Major General’s song as if it were a coherent piece of thought (and Andrew Shore’s performance at ENO demonstrated that, in fact, it is). Perhaps the fact that there’s only a piano accompaniment meant that you miss the wit of Sullivan’s music for the policemen, but Mike Leigh’s deadpan marching was far, far funnier than the Ministry of Silly Walks approach taken here for them and the whole point of “With cat like tread” is that it is meant to be very loud indeed – singing it softly takes away one of the best jokes.

What they had was energy and this was a busy, strongly choreographed production, with some nice jokes (I liked the policemen sneaking off rather than fight the pirates, the shenanigans during Sighing softly to the river were very funny), a very competent cast that was pretty easy on the eye and the huge advantage that Pirates is pretty much unsinkable. It’s a pleasant, enthusiastic enough evening and I’ve seen duller traditional performances.  But don’t let the awards kid you into thinking it’s that outstanding, because it isn’t.

Mike Leigh’s Pirates

20 May

To me, the most remarkable and reassuring thing about the performance of Mike Leigh’s production of Pirates of Penzance at ENO on 19th May was the reaction of the audience. First, I was slightly surprised that the place was packed. Secondly, they were laughing at the jokes, enjoying the music and cheering at the end. This wasn’t a respectful audience sitting through an exhumation but people having a lovely time. It was as if many of them hadn’t seen the piece before, or not for a long time, and were surprised at how good it was.
I think that if I were trying a newcomer out on G&S, Pirates is probably the one I’d take them to. It’s among the most concise and has the freshness and confidence of youth. The situations and dialogue have that deadpan daftness that, as I’ve remarked before, isn’t a million miles from Monty Python or Blackadder and Sullivan’s music is among his most enchanting. There are lovely examples of his ability to set words that are, frankly rude or unpleasant to the most gorgeous melody (Ah is there not one maiden here/whose homely face and bad complexion/has caused all hope to disappear/of ever winning man’s affection) so that his music is undercut by Gilbert’s words. The essence of the operettas is here.

Since Topsy Turvy everyone knows that Mike is a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan.  So what would he make of this? The joy was that he trusted the piece absolutely. He had clearly spent most of the rehearsal period working on getting the lines across and making them work in their own right. There wasn’t a single moment when you felt that the delivery was flat or wrong and many when you heard something fresh. He demonstrated that you didn’t need extravagant routines to make the Paradox trio work. The very simple choreography for the police was funny because of the deadpan simplicity of it. I’ve noted that the opera often feels slightly flat at the beginning. Here, I wasn’t conscious of that. It didn’t appear to try too hard, it simply delivered the work for what it was. Years of routine had been scrubbed away. And it worked.

Alison Chitty’s sets were simple but neatly reduced the size of the Coliseum stage to fit a pretty small chorus. The costumes might have come from the D’Oyly Carte costume box but were none the worse for that and the routines, the gags were notable for their absence. The wit and charm and silliness came across.

It was matched by a very clean musical performance. David Parry conducted clearly, relishing the beauties, considerate to his singers and enjoying the ridiculousness of With cat-like tread and the quiet wit of the Policeman’s song. The orchestra played really well.  Perhaps it was a bit too clean.  I bet that the original orchestra was a bit rougher than this and I bet that they weren’t nearly so restrained when the big tune came in early on in the overture.  On the other hand, you heard the details and the wit and the tempi felt right.

And there was a really nice cast. Joshua Bloom made a superbly confident, jovial Pirate King, Jonathan Lemalu caught the melancholy of the Sergeant of Police, Claudia Boyle was a very witty Mabel, recognising that Poor Wand’ring One is a comedy number but also singing the more serious side very well. Robert Murray was a nicely bewildered Frederic, who sang his arias with great skill. Rebecca du Pont Davies was a less melodramatic Ruth than many but put the role across well. Andrew Shore was an expert Major General and I really liked the idea that I am the very model was a well-rehearsed routine between him and his daughters who were eagerly awaiting the “sat a gee” joke – a nice overturning of years of tradition. This was one of the few occasions when I have seen opera singers doing dialogue in a way that worked.

Having said all that and recorded my immense admiration for the work, it would be dishonest not to note a couple of problems. The first is the size of the Coliseum. Gilbert and Sullivan were writing for much smaller theatres and, if you are stripping away all the routines and taking it as seriously as this, it can’t help feeling slightly lost. There was just a slight sense of artists bellowing to get the dialogue across, of good young singers who were stretched to their limits by the auditorium. I wonder how it all came across at the back of the balcony. It felt a bit small and I wished that it were being done in a smaller theatre.

Secondly, this very clean approach reminded me slightly of Giulini conducting Trovatore or Rigoletto – you wish, just occasionally that he’d let his hair down and stop being so serious and puritanical.Parry’s conducting of the overture was a tad too exact. I also thought that there was more scope for fun. Climbing over rocky mountains is a gem of a number but you can have some nice jokes there, I’ve seen many funnier Tarantara numbers which have not gone over the top but had the audience rolling in the aisles and I think that a director can allow himself this without compromising a serious approach elsewhere. And it was this absence of something visual to match the daftness of the plot and the exuberance of the music that I missed and which just stopped this being a classic Pirates.

Sullivan with and without Gilbert

10 May

Having enjoyed the two previous Charles Court Opera performances, that I’ve seen, it was a no-brainer to make my way up to London on 10th May to see the matinee of the their double bill of Sullivan’s The Zoo and Trial by Jury at the King’s Head.  Trial was the first opera I ever saw, when I was four and I’ve never seen The Zoo before.  It proved a really nice way of spending a Sunday afternoon.

The Zoo was written about the same time as Trial with a libretto by Barton Rowe (a pseudonym).  it’s a very light piece of flummery set, as you might guess, in London Zoo.  It’s a lower middle class comedy: an apothecary loves a grocer’s daughter but her father won’t consent to their marriage so he is suicidal and a duke loves a barmaid.  The lyrics are not quite in Gilbert’s class but they’re enjoyable enough with a nice sense of the ridiculous – the apothecary wants to hurl himself in the bear pit only to find that they’ve moved the bears.  The barmaid is no better than she ought to be and has rather diverting song to a lilting music hall tune telling you all about it.

The joy is Sullivan’s music.  Again, it doesn’t reach the heights of some of his later works, but there’s a freshness about it and it has lots of his hallmarks – some lovely parodies of operatic conventions, a gorgeous double duet and that deadpan sense of the ridiculous that he is so good at.  The word setting is impeccable.  There’s a fine recording of it by the old D’Oyly Carte (currently on Decca’s Sorceror set) and I commend it to anyone interested.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it deserves to be done now and then.

The Charles Court performance cut the chorus but was otherwise complete and very, very good.  David Menezes made a soulful, silly suicidal apothecary, Catrine Kirkman was equally silly as Laetitia and sang it nicely.  Ideally, you need Barbara Windsor for Eliza the Barmaid and Nichola Jolley is not her.  However, she did her “I have so many “cousins” now which one was I going to marry” number very well.  Matthew Kellett was a suitably angry Grinder the grocer and John Savournin, who directed, had fun as Thomas Brown (aka the Duke of Islington).  It was a thoroughly amiable performance and hard to dislike.

Trial by Jury is a complete masterpiece.  Gilbert’s libretto doesn’t put a foot wrong and Sullivan’s score fits it like a glove.  He manages to find music which tells you how ghastly all of these characters are.  He punctures the pomposity of the judge and the system and, in A nice dilemma, he provides a parody of Bellini/Donizetti ensembles that is, actually, as good as them.  It’s 35 minutes of pure pleasure.

So was this performance.  Savournin got over the problem that we don’t have breach of promise actions any more by setting it as Judge Judy sort of TV show.  We have a plaintiff who is clearly in the late stages of pregnancy and from the nastier parts of Essex, a thuggish defendant, ditto and, brilliantly, a lesbian judge (Savournin in drag) with a pronounced American accent and.a randy court clerk.  There’s lots of fighting between Plaintiff and Defendant and lots of perfectly judged business – “What’s Watteau” asked the Plaintiff after her Counsel made her sing about him.  I smiled and giggled throughout.

Savournin was in his element as the Judge – it’s an easy part to ham up and to overdo but I thought that he got the balance spot on.  This man has serious talent and it’s good to know that he’s doing stuff with Holland Park and Opera North in the coming months.  Menezes made a thuggish, rather thick defendant, while Ms Kirkman was completely transformed as Angelina and was very, very funny.  Philip Lee joined the cast as Counsel for the Plaintiff and was brilliantly unctuous in a nicely understated way.  Kellett was very funny indeed as the clerk.

David Eaton played the piano valiantly, setting brisk, intelligent tempi and the musical values were high.  Ideally, I’d like to see both with chorus and with Sullivan’s orchestration, but there’s little prospect of that, and I didn’t feel cheated by this.

The run’s now over but if they do it again, G&S fans shouldn’t hesitate.