Sublime silliness, melodiously misanthropic and cheerfully absurd: such is the essence of The Mikado. It’s an essence fully captured by Opera Queensland in their lively new production of this Gilbert and Sullivan classic.
Musically, the production at South Bank’s Conservatorium Theatre sounds spot-on perfect. Always accessible and often extremely catchy, Sullivan’s score is at the same time emotionally complex and, within the unpretentious parameters it set for itself, aesthetically sophisticated.
It is fitting then that the operetta should open and close with conductor Brian Castles-Onion. The overture about to start, his spotlighted head suddenly bobs up out of the orchestra pit. Some three hours later, following the thunderous full-cast finale and the last curtain call, he “silly walks” onto the stage looking super-cool, and almost makes off with the show.
In the demanding role of Ko-Ko the Lord High Executioner of Titipu, accomplished stage actor Eugene Gilfedder gives a standout performance, the campy intimacy he establishes with the audience reminiscent of the late British comedian Frankie Howerd. Often speaking his songs in a roguish sort of voice rather than singing them in the technical sense, as a knockabout clown Gilfedder is superlative, his comic timing impeccable. (And when he does sing, his intonation is not bad at all.)
Updates to the libretto work well. References to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Courier-Mail reviewers and “climate change denialists” lend some topical spice to Gilfedder’s first musical number as he mischievously works his way through a list of those “who would not be missed” were they to be executed. The Act II showpiece number “A more humane Mikado”, sung powerfully by a gleefully malicious bass-baritone Richard Anderson as the emperor of Japan, is likewise peppered with contemporary allusions. Satirical targets are no less abundant now than when The Mikado was first performed in 1885.
Contralto Adele Johnston plays an impressively, some would say fearsomely, bosomed Katisha. Her Act II duet with Ko-Ko (“There is beauty in the bellow of the blast”) is a superb piece of theatre, combining singing, dancing, mime and dazzling athleticism. That Gilbert’s lyrics were heartlessly mocking the romantic delusions of a plain-looking, middle-aged woman tended to get lost in the overwhelming exuberance of the moment.
Tenor Dominic Walsh and soprano Kristy Swift sing beautifully as hero Nanki-Poo and heroine Yum-Yum, although their voices don’t always carry as well in the spoken dialogue, especially in contrast with Gilfedder’s classically trained actor’s voice. But they certainly outshine him in the singing department, and each sings a memorable solo in addition to ensemble pieces.
The singing is also of high quality from baritones Andrew Moran as Pooh-Bah and Jason Barry-Smith as Pish-Tush, although they are more understated as actors than is common in these roles. Excellent support comes from Emily Burke and Deborah Rogers as Yum-yum’s companions, while the 15-strong chorus of gentlemen and ladies perform very well physically and musically. Choreographer Siobhan Ginty gives them all much fascinating movement to work with.
Designer Simone Romaniuk’s sets and costumes in Act II seemed generally more colourful and imaginative than those in Act I, although the Lolita-like sailor suits and long socks of the female chorus in Act I are certainly a bold bit of costuming. The opening scene of Act II with its massive floor-to-gantry panel of oversized cherry blossoms make good use of the vast space above the stage, which, when left unfilled, has the effect of dwarfing the performers.
The wigs are unapologetically outrageous: glossy black ones for the male chorus, bouncy blonde curls for the female. Intentional anachronisms and incongruities abound; Pish-Tush for example wears a three-piece suit along with a tartan kilt. This is a production well aware of the sheer nuttiness of it all.
Siobhan Ginty’s choreography is splendid, together with director Stuart Maunder’s overall concept.
In all, director Stuart Maunder and Opera Queensland have put together a hugely entertaining show. This was genuine Gilbert and Sullivan tongue-in-cheek and exhilaratingly insane.
(The Mikado‘s Brisbane season from 7th to 28th July at the Conservatorium Theatre is followed by a regional tour from 4th to 16th August, with performances at the Gold Coast, Toowoomba, Maryborough, Rockhampton, Mackay and Townsville.)