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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.

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Scottish Opera’ Pirates

29 Jun

If I had to introduce anyone to all the things that make me love Gilbert and Sullivan, playing them the second half of the first act of The Pirates of Penzance would probably be where I’d start.  From the moment when the daughters enter – that excited little string figure leading to one of their most delightful choruses, through to Frederic’s Oh is there not one maiden breast, Poor wand’ring one, the chorus of girls doubling with the Mabel/Frederic duet, the entrance of the Pirates and then the Major General’s patter number.  This seems to me to contain, the innocence, wit, sophistication, parody and sheer pleasure of these works and, if you don’t surrender to them, then probably Gilbert and Sullivan is not for you.  Sullivan manages to parody operatic style, but also catches a seriousness that gives an ambiguity and joy that I love.  Of course, there’s other wonderful stuff in Pirates, particularly in the second act, where the policemen are among their greatest comic creations and the Mabel/Frederic duet is among their most beguilingly lovely, but the earlier section, for me, has the confidence and certainty that sums up their art.

This thought seemed to me to be affirmed by the performance of the opera that I saw at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on 28th June.  It’s a joint production by Scottish Opera and the D’Oyly Carte  and is now on an extended tour.   It’s often a problem with G&S that they take time to warm up (though the most successful productions that I’ve seen manage to make it work from the start).  And this performance was no exception.  It began slightly uneasily as if worried that it might seem a bit dull and outdated for modern audiences, trying a bit hard and then, as the girls arrived, it relaxed and we realised that it was good.

Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production was fresh and alert.  It didn’t do anything particularly startling but, within the basically Victorian setting, had fun.  It recognised that dance was a central element and Steve Elias’s routines looked good and were carried out slickly.  The police routine owed a little bit to the West End production in the early 1980s and was all the better for that.  The dialogue was spoken with point, directly, clearly and without the archness that is a temptation here.  And there were some lovely jokes – a chapel that is clearly too small for all the cast to fit into and a nice sense of the ridiculous.  It could have been a bit broader without losing anything but it remained an amiable, happy show.

The cast was very good indeed – a nice mixture of youth and experience.  Rebecca Bottone made a lovely Mabel, singing with real wit, great coloratura and turning Poor Wand’ring one into a real comic hit – I loved Lloyd-Evans’s idea, from Ruddigore, that she and Frederic hadn’t a clue how to deal with each other.  This was probably the best reading of the role that I’ve seen.  Sam Furness, still in the earliest stages of his career, showed bags of charm and a nice, light tenor as Frederic.  He’d be a smashing Albert Herring.  Rosie Aldridge was a beautifully judged Ruth – very funny indeed.

We had experience in the form of Richard Suart’s matchless Major-General.  I first saw him do it in the late 1980s and, while the details have changed, he presented a beautifully understated, very funny and skilful.  There may have been flashier performances but I can’t think of anyone I’d rather see do it.  Stephen Page makes a dashing, funny, ideal Pirate King, while Graeme Broadbent has a high old time as the Sergeant of Police who wants to be a star.

Derek Clark’s conducting was good.  It’s probably too much to ask for the finesse and sheer certainty of Sir Charles Mackerras in this repertory, but he brought out the instrumental details well.  The orchestra played gamely (they must be able to do it in their sleep by now) and the chorus sang similarly even if ensemble wasn’t perfect.

They were performing the show for the whole week and, perhaps surprisingly, the theatre was pretty full and, even better, the audience was really enthusiastic at the end.  Justly so.   Can we please have some more G&S of this calibre?