Slick, glossy and professional, English National Opera's revival of Jonathan Miller's production of The Mikado bears all the signs of a well-rehearsed show. The singing is mostly very good, with some excellent individual contributions, the ensemble is lively and everything fizzes along at a good pace.
Yet throughout this performance, I kept wondering why the piece still appeals to people today. WS Gilbert's libretto and particularly the score by Sir Arthur Sullivan seem incredibly banal, to me at least. Miller's production updates the action to a luxurious hotel foyer in the 1930s, where all the action takes place in Stefanos Lazaridis' single cream-coloured set.
Miller doesn't really bother with the idea that The Mikado has anything to do with Japan and instead engages with it as a satire on the English. That's fine as far as it goes - Gilbert and Sullivan certainly were out to poke fun at the foibles of the British in such figures as Pooh-Bah, the Lord-High-Everything-Else of Japan whose multi-tasking allows him to serve himself at every turn and therefore illustrates corruption with considerable wit.
But why the pastiche Oriental music and the silly names and the (albeit comedic) threats of public executions and so on, in 1930s England? Whilst a large majority of the jokes in the piece are decidedly a lampooning of rotten British politics, one of the other contexts of the original Victorian production of Mikado was the European interest in all things Japanese. It has to at least pretend to be a little bit 'Other' in order to thinly mask its attack on the British. By giving it the air of a lightweight British musical comedy, complete with camp upper-crust accents, tap-dancing bellboys and silly schoolgirls, Miller makes the sardonic undercurrent completely overt. At the same time, all the Busby Berkeley song-and-dance, hammy acting and over-telegraphed pantomimic delivery of jokes whitewashes the real message. This means that we just lose interest in any kind of plot or subtext, making for a rather bland and often dull experience.
The music, too, is wearying. With the exception perhaps of the loose-structured concerted Act I finale, Katisha's minor-key aria and a parody of a madrigal for the wedding day, there's very little substance to most of the score. In the numbers where chromatic inflections occur, there's something of interest, but on the whole there's a homogeneity about many of the songs that becomes tedious as the evening proceeds. For me, the orchestration is one of the weakest aspects, because there's little variety or imagination about it: light string accompaniments, doubling of the vocal line in the woodwind, cymbal crashes for the entrance of the Mikado. Wyn Davies' efficient but uninspired conducting probably didn't help in this, and there were a number of missed or uncertain vocal entries.
The cast, however, is largely magnificent. In particular, Robert Murray gave a remarkable performance as Nanki-Poo. Formerly on Covent Garden's Young Artists roster, the tenor has come on leaps and bounds and almost stole the show from his talented colleagues due to his clear diction, full tone and well-rounded phrasing. Sarah Tynan was also superb at this performance, her bright soprano soaring across the orchestra with ease. Her sexy but sweet acting as Yum-Yum also helped to keep the show ticking along nicely.
Richard Suart is an old hand at the role of Ko-Ko and once more brought considerable charisma and insight to the character, causing ripples of laughter for his rewriting of the 'Little List' song (three cheers for the inclusion of Paul Potts), though at times I felt he exaggerated the comedy to its detriment. Rich-voiced mezzo Anna Grevelius was outstanding as Pitti-Sing, as was classy Graeme Danby as Pooh-Bah (when will someone give him the meatier role that he deserves?).
Richard Angas was vocally secure as the Mikado, but I thought he was a little too placid; understatement can be menacing, but here he just seemed too nice a chap ever to have caused all the problems of the story. Frances McCafferty looked and acted the part of Katisha to perfection but on the whole was vocally inadequate, in no way wiping out memories of Felicity Palmer in this role.
Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados need not resist the opportunity to see this reliable rendition of one of the duo's most popular works, but I'm not sure it will appeal to the average theatre or opera goer.
Read our interview with Robert Murray and Sarah Tynan about this production here.