There’s a lot to like about this new production of The Mikado but unfortunately there’s quite a lot about it to cause concern too. There seems little doubt that it will bring in the crowds throughout a relatively long tour which goes to Belfast, Newcastle, Bristol and Southampton as well as Scottish Opera’s usual venues. With any luck, it might bed in fairly soon and be ready for most of those who see it.

Stephen Richardson as The Mikado. Scottish Opera and D’Oyly Carte 2016. Credit James Glossop.

Let us focus on the positives first. This is a stunningly designed show. Designer Dick Bird has pulled off a show which instantly looks alive and vibrant. Quite where we were is something that I never managed to work out. That Japan might be one of the possibilities should not be surprising. However, the ladies of the chorus were wearing some rather splendid Victorian bloomers under their kimonos, whilst their gentlemen counterparts appeared to have escaped from a cross-dressing themed Busby Berkley musical that never got made. We sometimes seemed to be a the end of Victorian pier but it was a bit of a surprise when the Mikado himself arrived on a naval ship that looked like it was out to catch the Pirates of Penzance.

However, let us be postmodern about this. The costumes and the set were executed with considerable aplomb. The sheer vibrancy of the colours on stage seeming to cock a snook at anyone who fondly thinks of Jonathan Miller’s much more washed-out Mikado of lasting ENO success.

The chorus of The Mikado.  Scottish Opera and D'Oyly Carte 2016. Credit James Glossop.

There was quite a lot of stage business going on at the beginning during the overture. Ko-Ko appeared ready to do a magic trick, cutting an apparent volunteer from the audience into pieces. The subsequently dismembered head, when the trick went wrong, then joining many others sitting on platters who introduced themselves as the Gentlemen of Japan. It was clever and as a bonus distracted considerably from a rather lumpy overture, taken (like a lot of the evening) at a rather turgid pace. However, once we’d got over the notion that the Gentlemen of Japan were all decapitated heads who had retained the ability to sing, they just disappeared along with the idea of Ko-Ko’s magic tricks. It was symptomatic of ideas being presented visually extremely well but which didn’t really feel as though they had been carried through to their logical conclusion.

There’s quite a lot to like about the singing. Nicholas Sherratt had a gentle take on Nanki-Poo – a lyrical performance which did him credit. Rebecca Bottone’s Yum-Yum matched him well. There was an effortlessness about their duets which was very pleasing. The three little maids from school were completed with Sioned Gewn Davies’s Pitti-Sing and Emma Kerr’s Peep-Bo. Ms Davies’s voice was perhaps just a little too strong to blend well with Ms Bottone but the three of them looked the part and had lots of energy.

Andrew Shore, Ben McAteer and Richard Suart in The Mikado. Scottish Opera and D’Oyly Carte 2016. Credit James Glossop.

Andrew Shore’s Pooh Bah was deliciously pompous. His voice was deliciously rich too. Ben McAteer, fresh from Scottish Opera’s stunning recent new commission The Devil Inside, demonstrated that he could hold his own in a very different genre. Here he was an absurdly camp comic Pish-Tush who was considerably more funny than most absurdly camp comic turns usually are. The Mikado himself, Stephen Richardson had a magisterial richness in his singing and when he tried to tell us that the punishment must fit the crime, he did so in a stately and very courtly manner.

Generally speaking it was a vocally strong cast. Only Rebecca de Pont Davies gave cause for concern. Though her Katisha was brilliantly alarming, she was struggling again and again to keep the lower notes of her register in tune and one had to rely on the surtitles far more often than should have been necessary.

By a long way, the figure on stage with the greatest experience of Gilbert and Sullivan was Richard Suart as Ko-Ko and that experience showed. He used plenty of rubato to play around with his lines which added interesting character to the singing. The Little List was magnificently rewritten and was laugh-out-loud funny. A particularly good joke about the Prime Minister’s pig-gate fiasco was made all the more funny for me as I seemed to be sitting next to the only person in the theatre who didn’t get it and didn’t find it amusing at all.

Rebecca de Pont Davies as Katisha  and Stephen Richardson as The Mikado. Scottish Opera and D'Oyly Carte 2016.  Credit James Glossop.

The use of a ventriloquist’s dummy in the shape of a crow during Tit Willow was utterly inspired.

The only thing that jarred about Suart’s performance was his spoken accent which seemed to be cockney with a side order of Australian strine. It was also not the only odd accent on the stage, Yum-Yum sounded terribly strangulated when she was speaking though beautifully fluid when singing. And I didn’t like Nanki-Poo’s “home counties with a slight speech impediment” accent all. Fortunately, neither did Nicholas Sherratt, as he dropped it more and more as the evening went on.

The odd accents and the strange lurches from one genre to another (Katisha arrived on The Great Wave off Kanagawa but ended up chasing Ko-Ko through some kind of horror movie) meant that one was never sure where one was. Indeed, I realised about half way through that I’d not heard such strange and inconsistent accents on an opera stage since the last time Scottish Opera put on a Savoy Opera – Pirates of Penzance with the same director Martin Lloyd-Evans two years ago. Perhaps they are his trademark but they added nothing constructive to the show.

Down in the pit, slapdash work was being made of Sullivan’s score. Conductor Derek Clark was very obviously struggling to keep the singers and the orchestra together. This was particularly so during “To Sit In Solemn Silence in A Dull Dark Dock” and the finale which was in grave danger of unravelling completely.

Overall, one was left with the impression of a show which had a lot of good ideas washing around, not all of which were followed through and which was simply not ready for performance. No doubt things will tighten up a bit on tour but for Glasgow audiences it felt very much like a rehearsal for the real thing.

3 stars

Kelvin Holdsworth

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