Jonathan Miller’s production of The Mikado has become something of a classic of the English National Opera repertoire. Camp, ebullient, and effortlessly stylish, it is back in its 14th revival and will reach its 200th performance at the Coliseum in December. The abundant wit and charm of the production seem remarkably immune to the entropy that plagues so many far younger revivals. Reinvigorated by excellent performances from a mostly young, all-British cast and revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall, even after so many years and so many performances, it feels as glittering and fresh as ever it did.
Transplanting the location from feudal Japan to a British grand hotel of the 1930s, Miller’s production drives home the essential Britishness of the work and its characters, variously obsessed as they are with social status and the quasi-Victorian ‘correctness’ of their behavior. Gilbert and Sullivan’s wry tale of Titipu, a seaside town in an ancient Japan ruled by a Mikado peculiarly fixated on devising an apt punishment to fit every crime, loses little colour in its transposition to Britain. Indeed, the whole show is such a feast of Britishness, from the dry humour of Gilbert’s delicious libretto to the immaculately choreographed flamboyance of the chorus, bellboys, and maids, the re-location feels right. Gilbert and Sullivan use an exotic setting as a device to frame a satire of British manners and eccentricities, and this is conveyed all the more cleverly by the production’s eschewal of ersatz Asian cliché.
The set design of the late Stefanos Lazaridis takes much credit for this, the lavish palm court interior easily as interesting as more self-consciously exotic fare. Gleamingly awash in a palette of whites, creams, and blacks, the surreal visual opulence provides a perfect backdrop to the madcap world of the operetta. Embellishments are spare and distinctive—a white lacquer piano on which an oversized martini is set, a great cream fern, a round settee that doubles as a fountain, a gramophone—the whole adding up to a mise-en-scène that still arrests visually every time one sees it. The production is a masterclass in how to update a work shrewdly in a way that feels natural and does not seem to date.
It all works impeccably with the over the top farce of the plot. Nanki-Poo, disguised as the second-trombone in the Titipu band, is secretly the son of the great Mikado, having fled the court due to his forced betrothal to the older Katisha. He has fallen in love with the beautiful Yum-Yum, who is already engaged to marry her guardian Ko-Ko, the town tailor expediently made Lord High Executioner. Ko-Ko, regrettably for being the Lord High Executioner, does not actually have the stomach for execution; however, when the Mikado decrees that Titipu must have an execution or be downgraded to the status of a mere town, an act which would bring untenable shame and ruin to its hapless inhabitants, a victim must be found. As Nanki-Poo has no intention of continuing to live if he cannot have Yum-Yum, a scheme is launched whereby he will live out his heart’s desire and marry Yum-Yum, having her for a single month—at the end of which Ko-Ko will behead him, so that the Mikado has his execution.
The plot continues from there, convoluted and silly and dependent on various twists and revelations until Ko-Ko is himself sentenced to be put to death by the Mikado. Yet for all the lighthearted banter about beheading and murder, all turns out all right in the end, Nanki-Poo rightfully reinstated as the royal heir with Yum-Yum his devoted wife. It is all thoroughly irreverent and trivial, a natural fit for the deftly dispatched comedy of the production. For how ridiculous it all sounds on paper, the performance is delightfully realised with exactly the right undercurrent of dry wit; it has been a long time since I have heard an audience laugh so genuinely quite so often at a live performance.
Of course, it helps that The Mikado features some of Sullivan’s catchiest and most rousing music, and that it was so well evoked by the ENO. The company was heard to absolute best effect, led by the wonderful Ko-Ko of Richard Suart, a veteran of Miller’s production. It is hard to imagine a Ko-Ko with better comic timing or a more natural propensity to play his jokes to his audience. He delivered his ‘little list’ with clear enunciation and obvious relish, the names topically updated as usual to include this time the likes of Nicola Sturgeon, Sepp Blatter, Jeremy Corbyn, and Russian athletes on steroids. The audience ate up every word, particularly the exaggerated German accent that accompanied Mr. Suart’s naming of the company Volkswagen.
Anthony Gregory’s Nanki-Poo exuded charm, his tenor light but lyrical. Appearing on stage clad in a striped boating jacket, patched cream trousers, and straw hat with his trombone case in hand, he launched into a pleasing rendition of ‘A wand’ring minstrel I’ that was an early highlight of the evening. His wide-eyed earnestness was the perfect complement to Mary Bevan’s knowing Yum-Yum. Ms. Bevan sang beautifully, bringing a richly-hued tone to her lovely Act II aria, ‘The sun whose rays are all ablaze’. The three little maids were ably rounded out by the Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing of Fiona Canfield and Rachael Lloyd, respectively. They made a fine trio in the exuberantly sung ‘Three little maids from school are we’.
Veteran bass Robert Lloyd radiated authority as the Mikado, a fat suit lending him stature to match his booming voice. His big aria, ‘A more humane Mikado’, was a joy, marked by precise diction and authority. Equaling his authority if not his physical stature was the superb Katisha of Yvonne Howard. Ms. Howard brought the perfect degree of supercilious hauteur to the role, with a voice to match. She gave us some of the finest singing of the evening, investing ‘Alone, and yet alive’ with dramatic Mozartian flair. She delighted most in her duet with Ko-Ko, when the Lord High Executioner must bid for her hand in order to save himself from execution. Mr. Suart’s ingratiating flirting with the sterner Ms. Howard was very funny, his melancholy refrain of ‘Willow, tit-willow’ moving and hilarious in equal measure.
Mention also must be made of Katisha’s Pilot, David Newman, whose impassioned mock-accompaniment of his mistress’s singing on the grand piano exhibited an ardour worthy of Beethoven.
Graeme Danby continuously delighted as Pooh-Bah, the man born of station so high he can trace his lineage back to pre-Adamite protoplasmic sludge. Together with an entertaining George Humphreys as the nobleman Pish-Tush, they rounded out a cast that worked wonderfully as an ensemble.
Anthony van Laast’s choreography, revived by Carol Grant, proved as sharp as ever, and the spirited ENO Chorus sounded fantastic. The orchestra was led by Fergus Macleod, making his ENO debut as the youngest director to lead the company since Charles Mackerras. Under his baton, Sullivan’s playful score was marked by generally swift tempi—with perhaps the sole exception of an overture that was a trifle slow to get going—that maintained momentum from the entrance of the chorus in Act I to the uproarious finale.
I suspect I was not alone in the audience in finding the revival felt rather like the return of an old friend. The standing ovation that met Mr. Miller’s curtain call attested as much, driving home just how beloved his production still is, and just how good the ENO is capable of being in the right repertoire and with an experienced director. For those with a taste for Gilbert and Sullivan or an appetite to venture a try, The Mikado remains a shining example of the company at its best.
John E. de Wald
(Photos : Tristram Kenton / ENO website)