The Mikado

Reviewer's Rating

What more is there to be said or done with ‘The Mikado?’ Since its appearance in the wake of an Anglo-Japanese exhibition in London in 1885 it has never gone out of favour; and then after the end of the D’Oyly Carte era it again received a whole new lease of life in Jonathan Miller’s classic production for English National Opera. Enter John Savournin and Charles Court Opera, who have found another way of recasting this work for our own times while preserving the brilliance of humour, music and ‘topsy-turvy’ scenarios intact.

In a programme note Savournin makes the valid point that there is actually nothing very Japanese at all about this operetta – the characters, wit and situational humour are all in essence period-English to which an exotic Japanese lacquer has been applied. Stripping that away, or at least placing it to one side, causes no losses while also addressing cultural sensitivities today that might otherwise distract from the qualities of the original. So what this means in practice is that the location shifts from Japan itself to the British consulate in the real province of Totori (rather than Titipu), where the Mikado is the governor. Everyone is renamed other than the Mikado himself and the formidable Katisha, ‘his daughter-in-law-elect.’ And in some ways this setting only serves to intensify the satire of bumbling, self-contradictory, bureaucracy that already lies at the heart of the drama.

As always with this company, the musical foundation is rock solid thanks to the inimitable musical director, David Eaton. Not only does he shape a wholly authentic ensemble, but he conjures some wonderful, semi-orchestral sonorities from the Arcola’s aged and care-worn piano that border on the miraculous. Not only are the most celebrated numbers delivered with panache, but the more reflective interludes carried really tasteful weight – I was particularly struck by the rendition of the madrigal-parody: ‘Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day’, which was both exquisite in its own right and delightfully tongue-in-cheek – exactly the balance you need in this genre.

This production was very well suited to Studio 1 at the Arcola: designer Rachel Szmukler had created the over-stuffed, leathery, port-soaked atmosphere of a gentleman’s club, but left enough room for manoeuvre to allow for quite a bit of choreography and visual pratfalls. The cast all seemed comfortable operating in what seemed to me like a cramped space, but which clearly worked for them. As usual with this company wardrobe choices were all period-precise, in this case to the era just after World War Two.

The cast were uniformly excellent with singing that was neither too loud nor too reticent for this venue where it is often hard to judge quite what level of projection is best. In the title role and as one of the diplomats, Savournin was his usual suave and sonorous self. It is always impressive how well he blends his own performances into the framework that he has designed, as director, for the whole, never drawing undue attention to himself. As the young lovers at the centre, Robin Bailey and Alys Roberts were both pertly intelligent and genuinely romantic, as needed. Matthew Siveter was a model of pompous mock-modesty as Hugh Barr (a neat alternative to Pooh-Bah); and Matthew Kellett relished the verbal and dramatic switch-backs of the Lord High Executioner. His ‘Little List’ had its daring and coy moments, and he impressed with his ‘Snickersnee’. Meriel Cunningham and Jennifer Clark were arch and anguished as required, and Amy J Payne was a formidable, but in some ways warmer Katisha than is usual. In another concession to our own changing perceptions, some of the harshness with which Gilbert’s text judges older women is diluted – and again that seems to me right given that he was criticised for borderline cruelty in this regard even in his own time, let alone ours.

This production, which winds up Grimeborn for this year, delighted its press night audience and deserves to be seen far and wide. It stands out for its inherent quality and for the carefully considered way in which it updates where required, while preserving the essentials not just untouched, but even enhanced.