Jonathan Miller's famous 1930s English hotel-set staging of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Japanese' satire The Mikado is now twenty-five years old, and returns on its anniversary for yet another run with core cast retained (Richard Suart and Richard Angus as Ko-Ko and The Mikado respectively), alongside the addition of some new faces (Alfie Boe as Nanki-Poo and Sophie Bevan as Yum-Yum among them).
The set, used unchanged for the whole show, is resplendent, glowing bright in white and beige. The concept, unfortunately, is not so polished. The original piece cloaked its satire of British institutions in a Japanese setting, but, as G.K. Chesterton famously pointed out, there is probably not 'a single joke in the whole play that fits the Japanese'. That may be so, but at least in its original form the show made some kind of sense. Why, if we are looking at an English hotel, the constant references in the text to Japan, to Japanese rulers, and so on? Why, moreover, the pastiche Japanese court music at each entrance of the Mikado? It just doesn't work. Much better would be to have faith in the audience's ability to parse satire, retain the original setting, and do something interesting with it.
Once this fundamental and fatal contradiction at the heart of the production is acknowledged, however, Miller's production is often a lot of fun. The Busby Berkeley set pieces are wonderful, often involving the whole cast in joyous routines that take up the whole of the stage (courtesy of choreographer Anthony van Laast, and revival choreographer Stephen Speed). Richard Suart is as mischievous, mordant, and mocking as ever. His updating of the little list proved a highlight, hitting the spot precisely because even easy targets were sent up with wit and generosity. Suart banters well with Bevan as Yum-Yum, and grovels winningly at the feet of Angus' imperious and convincingly blithe (as regards his cheery commissioning of cruel acts of corporal punishment) Mikado. Anne Marie Owens in the comparatively difficult role of Katisha proved to be compelling, farcically stentorian early on, then vocally stunning in her penultimate song, 'Alone and Yet Alive' (which number shows that G&S wanted to belie the easy interpretation of Katisha has hateful shrew by allowing her to communicate in the richest music of the entire show).
Unfortunately Suart's charming fluency and easy way with bitter scorn didnít translate to some of the rest of the cast. Alfie Boe just didn't quite cut it here. His voice lacks the requisite elegance and variety, sounding sluggish in the legato of his first number, and being harshly underexposed alongside the other stronger voices in later ensemble numbers. His music hall jester, meanwhile, fell flat in almost every spoken scene. Sophie Bevan was much more vocally winning, projecting with clarity throughout the show, blending smoothly with her schoolgirl companions (one of whom, Claudia Huckle, provided much tonal variety and colour in the role of Pitti-Sing), and showing a maturity of voice and interpretation in the deceptively difficult ĎThe Sun Whose Raysí. But she acted with too much emphasis on the surface; her Yum-Yum was a hateful, mean little creature for whom I felt no empathy or kinship.
The performance in the pit was workmanlike at best. Chirping strings and winds got the notes out buoyantly enough, and brass duly did its martial thing, but there were simply too many moments of missed coordination between orchestra and singers, and too many perfunctory, unimaginative sorties through what is after all already very familiar (and homogenous) material. Volume and verve do not a good performance make, and as one of the many choruses belted out from the stage I found myself longing for a reading of much more sparkle and originality. I suspect a weary orchestra's hearts simply weren't in it. As for the crowd, well they lapped it up, as well they might. This is a well put together operetta that contains enough integrity and intelligence to impress in almost any form, and when you have cast members as strong as Suart and Owens you are unlikely to leave many people unsatisfied. But we should perhaps expect more from ENO than this.
Photo Credits: Chris Christodooulou
Opera Review: The 2008 production of The Mikado
Gheorghiu and Vargas in La bohème at the Met (Review, April 2008)
Jonathan Miller's production of Boheme its first run (Review, February 2009)