W S Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan
Carl Rosa Opera Company
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
It seems odd now to think that there was once a trend for updating The Mikado. Peter Mulloy, Artistic Director of Carl Rosa Opera, is a man for whom uncovering the minutiae of the original look of the piece is clearly a labour of love, so now we have a production with which Gilbert and Sullivan would have felt comfortably at home. It manages, however, to avoid the ossified traditionalism which for decades was the bane of the official G&S productions, where no hallowed bit of business could be changed without a memo from beyond the grave.
The mixture here of celebrating the original spirit of the works while gently infiltrating into them a fresh spontaneity and invention was heralded even during the overture - behind a gauze curtain we could see the sort of late Victorian ladies who originally masqueraded as Gilberts winsome Japanese damsels practising their technique with oriental fans a reference to the preparations for the first production. This let us take a step back from the opera, appreciating that it isnt just an ineffably silly re-creation of an exoticist fantasy of Japan, but also that its 1885 context now seems like a fantasy world too. Without these filters The Mikado might lose that particular tone which makes its archness genuinely funny and reminds us that, under closer scrutiny, any apparent sentimentality is only a thin veil over a tale where everyone is selfish, egocentric and amazingly adept at bending logic to suit themselves. I dont think this has anything to do with Japan, but its the essence of a certain kind of late Victorian humour.
And the humour here is paramount, permeating even the posturing of the choruses. The gentlemen seem even more formalised than is usual by the addition of mask-like white make-up, while the train of little ladies looks, entirely correctly, like a line-up of fetching Victorian gals who could swap their kimonos for bustles without really noticing the difference. They were never written as modest flowers instead they are (in the terms of the time) pert, sharp-witted ingénues out to get just what they want. This could hardly be set out more clearly than it appears in Yum-Yums aria The Sun Whose Rays, possibly the best solo in the opera and one of which Charlotte Page gave a ravishing rendition.
Generally, however, it doesnt seem unfair to say that this production isnt particularly distinguished musically. Perhaps thats in the nature of the music - The Mikado has more than its fair share of trios and quartets plus a glee and a madrigal, all of which tend to the ingenious rather than the emotionally engaging. These were the strengths here, along with the comic songs which Fenton Gray as Ko-Ko can deliver so effortlessly in character and while doing a funny walk. The star casting of key roles outside the company played, as is usually the case, to acting/comedy talents rather than purely vocal ones, reinforcing our take on this as an almost absurdist piece of theatrical whimsy. While the role of the Mikado is often given a bizarre gravitas, Sylvester McCoys version was definitely a creation of the man himself, an almost skittish potentate mugging shamelessly to the audience and relishing every new variant that had slipped into his exposition on punishments fitting crimes. As Katisha, the rather mature aspirant to the hand of romantic hero Nanki-Poo, Nichola McAuliffe played down the terrifying rapacity with which Gilbert tended to endow his older female characters. At first this risked leaving the role underpowered, but she managed to find in it an unexpected charm, as though Joyce Grenfell had donned a kimono in order to confess a hitherto-unexpected taste for public executions.
Yes, I know that sounds just weird, but like the rest of the production, it located an internal logic which made a kind of topsy-turvy sense (in so far as anything does in The Mikado). Gray and McAuliffe reminded us that while the romance between Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum can be taken as read, you can have much more fun exploring the mechanics of Ko-Ko and Katishas unlikely courtship. And this was fun. I know such productions demand a precision and control that must be a slog for the performers, but this one had the grace to make it look as though they were enjoying themselves, which feeling was naturally, appropriately, contagious.
Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson