The Mikado is one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular works. First performed in 1885, its nominal Japanese setting was always a thin veil for its commentary on English values, hierarchies, and arcane laws and conventions. This being so, director Jonathan Miller decided to do away with any sense of it being set in Japan at all by setting the action in a 1930s English hotel.
His production for English National Opera has been in the repertoire since 1986, and is frequently revived. A few key words are altered so that, for example, reference is made to a kiss-curl rather than a pigtail, but ultimately it doesn’t matter a jot that the male chorus sing ‘We are gentlemen of Japan’ while wearing English outfits.
In Stefanos Lazaridis’s sumptuous, and slightly surreal, set Classical stucco work appears alongside painted brick in a hotel foyer of sloping floors and strange proportions. Everything is dazzling white, including the piano and gramophone, while chairs and musical instruments sit halfway up the walls.
Analysing one country by nominally talking about another in itself introduces layers of meaning and Miller’s approach automatically strips these away, even if more is gained than lost from the innovative setting. While many visual jokes follow the grain of the piece, there are some that feel too deliberate and misplaced. The Act Two madrigal was purposely written to show off the vocal talents of the leads, and so inserting maids wobbling with their linen in the background simply distracts from the beautiful music and performance.
Although many principals are reprising their roles of many years, the cast as a whole feels just a notch down on the best this production has seen. There are stand-out performances though, particularly Mary Bevan as Yum-Yum. A real sense of ‘girlish glee’ is captured in the dart of her eyes and the tilt of the head, and Bevan’s voice possesses a pleasing combination of roundness and sensitivity. As Nanki-Poo, the object of her desire, Robert Murray looks the part in his boater and blazer, but this most serious of singers perhaps lacks the right lightness of vocal touch for a part such as this. Donald Maxwell plays the haughty Pooh-Bah with aplomb, bringing his secure baritone voice and intelligent use of gesture to the part while David Stout makes Pish-Tush a rougher character than (for example) William Robert Allenby did in the last revival, but is no less effective for that.
As Ko-Ko, the cheap tailor promoted to the rank of Lord High Executioner, Richard Suart, celebrating his twenty-fifth anniversary in the role, is in his element, whether he is acting the tennis playing twit, billiard shark buffoon, or wretched white suited suitor. His hilarious ‘list song’, which it is a tradition always to update with topical references, squeezes in mentions of Olympic beach volleyball, Philippa Middleton’s new book, the Leveson Inquiry, Nadine Dorries and even General Synod. This production has always suffered from not giving the character of Katisha enough space to reveal the real pathos beneath her haggish exterior, with ‘The hour of gladness’ played for laughs. But, given these limits, Yvonne Howard captures the part well, even if she doesn’t assert herself vocally as much as she might. Richard Angas, who played the Mikado in the very first production, is as reliable as ever, taking the stage by storm in ‘A more humane Mikado’, and proving a good responsive performer.
There’s a chance this production will feel slightly tired to regular ENO-goers – on opening night there were just a few fluffed lines and even one prompt – but to those coming to it for the first time, it still has the capacity to feel as fresh and funny and entertaining as it ever did.