It is ten years since the Carl Rosa company was relaunched, and I have to say that their Gilbert and Sullivan season, presented by Raymond Gubbay, had not filled me with pre-show excitement.
So much for expectation. Peter Mulloy’s opening production of The Mikado, conducted by Martin Handley, with footlights and cut-out scenery, is a total joy, beautifully sung and designed in the best of the old D’Oyly Carte traditions, and restoring what Jonathan Miller’s famous ENO production (coincidentally returning to the repertoire next week) expunged: a Victorian satirical/xenophobic take on all things Japanese.
Miller’s ENO version played the piece cod colonial when the whole point is that the Japanese political hierarchy looks different but is just like ours anyway. Eric Idle updated Ko-Ko’s “little list” every night; here, following that example, the society offenders include boybands, political donors and an MP’s paid-up relatives – and the Mikado’s innovative update on winkles and footballers leads to a gag about going abroad to the Coliseum.
Television impressionist Alistair McGowan, who just doesn’t quite cut it for me on the stage, is a genial guest artiste as the Mikado, with Nichola McAuliffe coming on strong as a magnificent Katisha, harbouring an unseemly crush on the Mikado’s disguised son, Nanki-Poo (Andrew Rees, very Welsh, very nice dry tenor). The Lord High Executioner, Ko-Ko, has been occupied, very well indeed, at short notice by Fenton Gray.
You feel that, having got the bad old Savoy days out of our system, it’s time to rediscover the genius of these operas. Mike Leigh’s brilliant Topsy-Turvy recreated the first night of The Mikado, and it’s no accident that Peter Mulloy worked on that sumptuous, affectionate movie as a researcher.
So we have cherry blossom, orange vistas, and a landscape of pagodas and clinically correct costumes and hairpieces. The sung conflict between Art and Nature expresses the exact tone of a camp take on a foreign culture that is endemic to the show’s humour, and every member of the chorus understands this. Nanki-Poo, the wandering minstrel, loves Yum-Yum, and Charlotte Page knows exactly how to pitch her modesty to excess.
The tone is spot-on, from Bruce Graham’s delightful Bert Lahr-lookalike as Poo-Bah, to Sophie Louise Dann’s outstandingly funny and bright Pitti-Sing and Steven Page’s well-judged Pish-Tush. Performances continue until 9 February, followed by Maria Ewing as the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe and Jo Brand as the Sergeant of Police in The Pirates of Penzance. I think I’ll be going back.
- Michael Coveney