Arthur SULLIVAN (1842 - 1900)
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. LPCM stereo.
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
OPERA AUSTRALIA OPQZ56015BD [144:00]
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 slower.
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.
A rip-roaring, don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it Mikado and a lot of fun.