Arthur SULLIVAN (1842 -
The Mikado (1885)
Richard Alexander (bass) – The Mikado; Kanen Breen (tenor) – Nanki-Poo;
Mitchell Butel (baritone) – Ko-Ko; Warwick Fyfe (baritone) – Pooh-Bah;
Samuel Dundas (baritone) – Pish-Tush; Taryn Fiebig (soprano) – Yum-Yum;
Dominica Matthews (mezzo) – Pitti-Sing; Annabelle Chaffey (soprano)
– Peep-Bo; Jacqueline Dark (mezzo) – Katisha
Opera Australia Chorus, Orchestra Victoria/Brian Castles-Onion
Stage Director: Stuart Maunder; Video Director: Cameron Kirkpatrick
rec. live, Arts Centre Melbourne, 24-25 May 2011
16:9 Blu-ray disc with 2.0 and 5.1 Colour 1080 60i. All regions.
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
OPERA AUSTRALIA OPQZ56015BD
The cover picture above gives a good indication of this performance.
Nanki-Poo is on the left, Yum-Yum on the right. As you can see
they’re pretty airborne and in bright, colourful, zany costumes.
This is a rip-roaring, don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it Mikado
and it’s a lot of fun. Musically it’s very good too. If you
know the work well, however, you may be surprised that the orchestra
begins not with the introduction to ‘Miya sama’, a real Japanese
war song of the 1870s, but the trumpet fanfares preceding ‘Behold
the Lord High Executioner!’ quickly skipping forward to ‘The
threatened cloud has passed away’ (Act 1 finale). What we have
here isn’t the original overture but a different pot-pourri
of the operetta’s tunes. OK, that original overture was by Hamilton
Clarke but apparently Sullivan did have a say in the melodic
sequence. This new version comes with abundant energy and enthusiasm
from Brian Castles-Onion and Orchestra Victoria. That said,
I feel I’ve lost a bit of the tradition.
The choreography is busy, the props exotic. Characters emerge
from large vases, baskets, a cupboard, a tent. In Act I a jet
black backcloth brings into relief all the colour before it.
As Yum-Yum sings ‘The sun whose rays’ in Act II there’s a fantastic
fan with deep blue fringes behind her covering the entire backstage.
In sum there’s really no pretence that all this is anything
other than make-believe. What about the music? For comparison
I chose what I think is the finest audio recording, that was
made in 1991 by Charles Mackerras with the Welsh National Opera
Chorus and Orchestra (Teldec CD 80284). The opening men’s
chorus from Opera Australia is lightly and freshly done but
the WNO has more density of projection and clarity of diction.
Mackerras also points more emphatically the way Sullivan’s orchestration
complements the voices. He’s aided by taking things just a touch
Kanen Breen’s Nanki-Poo for OA is as lyrical as you could wish,
not quite as fine as Antony Rolfe Johnson for Mackerras but
who is? My problem with Breen is his characterization which
I find a bit over-the-top. From time to time he gyrates well,
but does he have to? Rolfe Johnson proved Nanki-Poo can be played
straight. G&S are poking fun at the romantic hero and heroine
tradition but, unlike much of the satire, here from a base of
affection. Breen ruins the end of the minstrel sequence by adding
a gratuitous top C to the G of its closing ‘lullaby!’ marked
pp in the accompanying chorus The baby will be
bolting. Character becomes caricature.
Samuel Dundas’s light, rather dry but clear parlando
styled voice suits Pish-Tush well as a foil for the excellent,
more mellow Pooh-Bah of Warwick Fyfe who manages to be a likeable
rogue, a charlatan who commands respect. You won’t quickly forget
his ability literally to wear on top of one another the hats
of all the state offices he holds.
Mitchell Butel’s Ko-Ko, undoubtedly a hit with the audience,
is another ‘new’ interpretation, considerably more gauche than
the well-heeled con-man of Richard Suart for Mackerras. Butel
enters brandishing his Executioner’s axe, a clown of a Samurai
warrior who is quickly exhausted and desperately reaches for
his inhaler. He has, however, mastered that easy, endearing
confidentiality with the audience that you’ll forgive him for
anything. Well almost. I object to his hamming up his ‘passion
tend’rer still’ in the Act I finale and the gurgling echo of
‘tit-willow’ from the drowned bird: Suart achieves more pathos
from a light, pure falsetto here. I enjoyed Butel’s ‘little
list’ as executioner, brought bang up to date and increasingly
racy. You can check this out for yourself on Youtube. Just search
by ‘opera australia mikado’. Butel’s courting of Katisha late
in Act II and simultaneous revulsion, maintaining as much distance
from her as possible, is very funny.
Jacqueline Dark makes a formidable Katisha with extravagant
auburn wig and whip. She’s scary, yet everyone ignores her,
not least the Mikado who after her continual interruptions puts
a large brown paper bag on her head. I wondered how she could
breathe through the rest of the scene. She seems more comfortable
with the venomous aspects of her character. The poignant side
comes with more stridency in ‘The hour of gladness is dead and
gone’. She’s more affectingly plain for ‘Hearts do not break’
but still doesn’t have the emotive range and colour of Felicity
Palmer for Mackerras. Dark is probably the first Katisha to
show a fair leg in the dance.
Taryn Fiebig’s Yum-Yum is a realist modification of heroine:
she can adapt to circumstances. ‘The sun whose rays’ is nicely
sung: though its longer lines are a touch too fast for comfort
she finds more effective expansiveness later. Dominica Matthews’
Pitti-Sing could be the prototype of the female politician and
Annabelle Chaffey’s Peep-Bo blends well with the others. You
can also see ‘Three little maids from school’ on Youtube. It
comes off the starting blocks at a cracking pace.
I preferred Richard Alexander’s Mikado here to the well-known
Donald Adams for Mackerras. Alexander is more affable, suave
and subtle in his song. His laugh is smiling and then a little
more arch, not the wheezy extravagance of Adams in a tradition
which in any case only dates from the 1920s. Alexander does
permit himself the liberty of dropping an octave at ‘balls!’
but this creates a fitting comic moment.
Finally I report a loss and two gains. The loss is the absence
of the glee, ‘See how the Fates their gifts allot’, presumably
cut because it halts the action, standing aside from it, but
that itself makes a welcome change. One gain is the stunningly
clear Blu-ray picture and sound. The other is that unlike most
CD performances, including Mackerras, Gilbert’s dialogue is
provided as well as the music. It’s virtually complete with
slight additions like lots of recognizable Shakespeare such
as ‘Is this a dagger that I see before me?’ to fill out Ko-Ko’s
soliloquizing. Pacily presented it emerges, like the whole production,
enduringly witty and at times alarmingly topical.