What do you get when you take a musical theater piece composed in 1885, originally set in a mythical Japanese town, and place it in a black-and-white 1920’s world that’s decidedly English? A bit of confusion, perhaps, if you’re a purist with regards to staging, but if you’re up for some delicious visuals and very fine performances, the English National Opera’s 1987 film version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado is a delightful entertainment. I watched the first act on YouTube a couple of years ago and finally got around to viewing the whole thing with a friend last Saturday afternoon. We laughed, sang along at times, and, both being theater types, picked the show apart a bit.
Since then, I’ve read various online reviews of this production, a surprising number of which have been negative. The naysayers’ quibbles seem mostly to stem from the fact that the costumes in this show make everyone look so, well, English, yet they’re all singing about being Japanese. Haven’t “concept” productions of opera, Shakespeare, and the like been around for a few decades? Of course, some don’t care for such stagings, but they’re hardly novel – actually, they can seem a bit cliched these days. Given that Gilbert’s libretto pokes fun at so many quintessentially British institutions, transplanting The Mikado from Titipu to an unnamed Art Deco grand hotel doesn’t seem inappropriate. Our only real issue with this production was with Jonathan Miller’s direction; there are a few moments at which the actors were told to make racially insensitive hand gestures that must have seemed awkward even in 1987 and are downright offensive now. There are beautiful, clever moments in the staging, too, notably in Katisha’s Act One entrance and solo as well as “Braid the Raven Hair” and “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze.”
Cast-wise, this Mikado is a winner. Monty Python alum Eric Idle stars as Ko-Ko; while he’s hardly an opera singer, he carries his songs well enough and is, of course, hilarious to watch. His scenes with Felicity Palmer, a truly marvelous Katisha, are especially brilliant. Lesley Garret and Bonaventura Bottone make a delightful Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo, and Richard Van Allen’s Pooh-Bah is so odious he’s (almost) charming. If you’re up for a “Jazz Age” Mikado, this production is definitely worth a look.
1920's, Art Deco, Bonaventura Bottone, English National Opera, Eric Idle, Felicity Palmer, Gilbert and Sullivan, Lesley Garrett, Richard Van Allen, The Mikado