Here’s a how-de-do! Twenty-five years on, Jonathan Miller’s prime slice of Gilbert and Sullivan still scrubs up a treat. It’s fresh, full of style and replete with inventive, audience-grabbing originality – the very qualities that English National Opera’s artistic director John Berry claims he’s injecting into the company’s repertoire with his ‘first-time director’ policy. Pish-tush, say I. Let’s take bets on the next revival: Lucrezia Borgia’s first or The Mikado’s umpeenth?
To matters at hand. Peter Robinson sets a dizzy tempo for the overture and sustains its energy throughout the evening, yet never at the expense of tonal colour and variety. The orchestra clearly relishes its night off from Wagner and Donizetti. The curtain then rises on the late Stefanos Lazaridis’ celebrated cream-and-white hotel lounge and on one of the strongest casts this production has seen; from Alfie Boe’s kiss-curled Nanki-Poo to Claudia Huckle’s smoky-voiced Pitti-Sing, the performances are top-drawer. Only Anne Marie Owens is miscast: this fine singer is too demure to play Miller’s dragon of Katisha, while vocally she struggles a little with the idiom.
The revival is guided by Jonathan Miller’s own hand. It’s salutary to be reminded of the director’s heyday in the eighties, and of the resourceful creative spirit that gave us so much moody tragedy and sparkling comedy. I’ve been less impressed than some people by Miller’s recent work at ENO, but The Mikado is a gem. The production, set in a distorted environment redolent of the 1930s, apes the ‘Atonement’ school of diction throughout: 'A wundrin' mintstrel Ay', sings the hopelessly-besuited Boe, before chewing the name ‘Ko-Ko’ into a mass of diphthongs. And Sophie Bevan as his no-nonsense beloved, Yum-Yum, matches him vowel for mangled vowel. Rarely have love scenes been so droll.
As Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner and chief clown, the wonderful Richard Suart mugs and scenery-chews his way through yet another revival. His ever-changing list of society offenders is hilarious; but how could it not be, in these crazy times? First-night targets ranged from Wayne Rooney to Elton John, taking in Ryanair, Jacqui Smith and the Arab uprisings along the way. Who knows who’ll be for the chop at the next performance? (Watch out, Ashley Cole...) Suart’s partner in comedy is the best Pooh-Bah I’ve seen, and a wonderful surprise: it’s none other than Donald Maxwell as the very model of a smug, overbearing, trussed-up Scottish snob, and he steals scenes from under the nose of the master-scene-stealer himself.
The ENO Chorus lets its bewigged hair down for the evening, while a cohort of dancing bell-hops skip and jump with gay abandon through Anthony van Laast’s choreography (ably revived by Stephen Speed). The production has its flaws: Bevan, for instance, sings Yum-Yum’s achingly beautiful aria ‘The sun whose rays’ very sweetly, but the number sticks out like a sore thumb in such a zany context. The action is put on hold to accommodate it, then it is quickly forgotten as the natural order of knockabout resumes. If Miller had been more malleable with the score’s shifting moods, The Mikado’s calmer delights would have made their mark. But away with churls; instead let’s wish a happy 25th to ENO’s happiest opera.