Tag Archives: The Mikado

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.



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.

Modified Mikado

7 Dec

Hugh Canning’s review of Co-Opera Company’s Mikado in the October OPERA magazine was so good that I changed a few appointments to get to see it when it reached Hastings on 3rd December.  Maybe a Tuesday night in December at the White Rock in Hastings isn’t the best way to experience the piece.  Or perhaps not in the reduced version put on by Co-Opera.  It didn’t help that we had a small audience that seemed to have been bussed in from the local morgue.

Let’s get the problems out of the way.  Gilbert and Sullivan operas were written  for a company, including a chorus of 32 and a decent opera-sized orchestra.  They had considerable amounts of money spent on them and dance was an important element.  All the most successful post-D’Oyly Carte productions have understood this and given us an element of spectacle.  With the best will in the world, you cannot replicate the excitement and the spectacle that is an integral part of any decent Gilbert and Sullivan opera with a cast of eight, doubling up as the chorurs.  As a result, the finales fell flat and the sheer exhileration you should feel after Act I was missing.

Similarly, does anyone else remember how “here’s a how de do” used to stop the show when the old D’Oyly Carte did, simply through the extravagant silliness of the choreography?  Nobody, not even Jonathan Miller has been able to reproduce anything like that.  Here, the choreography was tame and the show missed the lift that it can get – many of the numbers lost their impact as a result.

Perhaps these were the downsides of what otherwise was a really alert and enjoyable performance of the piece.  What was key was the way in which the excellent cast performed the text as if it was new.  It was beautifully inflected, delivered with panache and you relished the way everything really meant something.  It felt as if the text had been cleaned and spruced up.  Examples?  You actually felt Katisha’s grief when she first thought Nanki Poo was dead.  Martin Nelson’s Mikado made more out of My Object All Sublime than any other Mikado I have heard.  There were countless little touches that made you listen to the words (which I know pretty much by heart) anew.  On that count alone it was worth the visit.

The cast, too, was excellent: mostly young singers, but performing was a real assurance.  Tristan Stocks made a handsome, intelligent Nanki-Poo, stretched slightly by some of the demands of the music, but here is a very pleasing light tenor with a nice quality – he’d be a great Candide.  Llio Evans was a really lovely, alert Yum-Yum who did a charming Sun whose rays, which was gorgeously shaped to the words.  Thomas Asher’s Pish Tush, normally a nothing role, did the best Our great Mikado I have ever heard, simply through his alert use of words and was a constant joy to watch.  I like a rather larger, oilier figure and voice than Owain Browne could provide for Pooh-Bah, but he just about made up for it by the understated wit of his performance.  Susanne Holmes and Pitti Sing and Georgina Stalbow as Peep-Bo worked hard and well.

Of the more experienced singers, Sandra Porter contributed a really moving, well-sung, characterful Katisha who managed to make the figure moving and funny.  Martin Nelson was an admirably cool, impeccably timed Mikado.  David Phipps-Davies was one of the best Ko-Ko’s I’ve seen – turning him into a rather pathetic, grumpy, insecure little man.  I couldn’t help feeling that Grossmith might have been like this.  He contributed a lengthy but very, very funny little list.

John Andrews conducted a rather intelligent performance.  Tempi struck me as a bit on the slow side but it helped with the articulation of the words.  His phrasing, however, was glorious – the oboe playing of The Sun whose rays in the overture was a joy – and he gave as joyous a performance as an orchestra of 13 and a cast of eight allowed.

James Bonas was the director and must obviously take lots of credit for all the good, stylish acting and great dialogue. I wasn’t particularly taken by the idea that it was set in an opium den in 1901 but, to be quite frank, there was nothing beyond the overture to suggest that this was at all relevant.  Above all, he needed a decent choreographer.

So it was nice evening and I enjoyed myself.  At £22, it was a pretty good bargain.  It probably wasn’t worth rearranging the rest of my life for.  The last time I saw something in Hastings, I thought Hastings deserved better.  For all the virtues of the staging  The Mikado deserves more than this.