A largely enjoyable “Mikado” this, at Lyric Opera
They say we’re not Grand Opera but what’s that all about?
A lot of Scottish mist. I’ve got it on the list.
At least our tenor doesn’t need a swan to take him out.
Richard Wagner, Komponist. He never would be missed!
And for something even siller, Puccini perhaps appeals
With Italian miners singing “Eez there gold een them thar heels?”
With a few new marketing-friendly couplets added to the Lord High Executioner’s little list, the Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its new production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado Monday night at the Civic Opera House.
The December holiday-season operetta in Chicago has become institutionalized under the Lyric’s outgoing general director, Bill Mason. Still, even for those committed Savoyards among us, it’s not an unreasonable question to ask whether a major company should be spending its increasingly limited resources on doing an operetta every season—especially at a company where American opera has been largely missing in action for several years.
That said, you’d have to be a purist churl indeed not to respond to the company’s new production of The Mikado. With a supremely stylish cast of opera singers clearly enjoying themselves, the Lyric Opera’s new Mikado is a delightful show, putting across G & S’s abundant melodies with all the considerable charm they’re worth.
The tangled plot relocates Gilbert & Sullivan’s usual British political jibes and jokes to the Japanese town of Titipu. Nanki-Poo, the son of the ruling Mikado, has disguised himself as a strolling musician to escape marriage to the amorous old battle-axe Katisha. He falls in love instead with the beautiful Yum-Yum, but marriage is made difficult by the fact that her guardian, Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, has his own designs on his ward. As always with Gilbert & Sullivan, complications ensue.
The ridiculous scenario is satiric window dressing for an array of great melodies and Mikado is chockablock full of some of the team’s finest, with Three little maids from school, On a tree by a river, and The flowers that bloom in the spring among them.
Perhaps the bitter cold Monday night had something to do with the performance taking a while to warm up. In the early going of Act 1, much of the comedy fell flat, and director Gary Griffin, who deftly helmed last year’s Merry Widow, seemed less assured here, directing with too heavy and obvious a hand. (As Nanki-Poo, Toby Spence sported orange hair for no other reason than that it seemed something wacky to do.)
If you’re expecting a lot of the usual piquant Japanese atmosphere, forget about it. This production updates the action to pre-Imperial 1922 Japan, and drab, dark Western clothing is the norm, with the opening chorus of gentlemen of Japan clad in identical spectacles, bowlers and black business suits. The women chorus members get more stylishly varied 1920s black-and-white dresses, yet the schoolgirls’ outfits are decidedly more Oxford than Osaka.
In Act 2, we’re allowed more color with multihued Eastern-style gowns and a single cherry blossom branch. Mark Thompson’s cost-effective Minimalist set with a golden back wall looks suspiciously like a refitting of the steps and framing wall of the final scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
That said, once Andrew Shore’s Pooh-Bah and Neil Davies’ Ko-Ko enter the action, the evening takes off as we’re safely in the hands of British singers with veteran Savoyard experience, manifest in both men’s assured comic delivery and crisp enunication of Gilbert’s devilishly witty lyrics.
But it is Stephanie Blythe who steals the entire show as the calculating villainess, Katisha. It’s unlikely that this supporting role has ever been sung with this caliber of gleaming operatic voice. She struck just the right note of not-too-serious expression in the mock-tragic Alone, and yet alive, and, with Davies, threw off the rapid-fire patter duet There is beauty in the bellow of the blast with blazing speed and crystal-clear diction
Blythe also displayed a great comedian’s timing making every punch line register. And, for a woman of such imposing physique, she showed herself a graceful and light-footed presence with her little victorious dance steps.
James Morris is a good sport in forsaking his usual Scarpias and Wotans to take on the small title role of the Mikado for the first time. While his understated ruler eschewed some of the traditional bits of business—a wry chuckle here with no Owen Brannigan-esque evil laughter in A more humane Mikado—Morris seemed to be having a high time in repertoire that is not his natural element.
The two lovers were a well-matched duo. Making his company debut as Nanki-Poo, Spence proved an engaging hero—even with the goofy orange hair–and showed an assured G & S style, though his colorless tenor lacked the tonal sweetness on top for A wandering minstrel I.
Lyric regular Andriana Chuchman was perfectly cast as the vivacious Yum-Yum. As in her Valencienne in last year’s Merry Widow, the Canadian soprano showed herself completely at home in operetta with a fine comic touch and assured vocalism, as in her lovely rendition of the The sun whose rays.
Neil Davies’ experience showed in his easy comic style and vocalism, with a nicely mellow On a tree by the river, and pinpoint articulation in his updated As some day it may happen and the quick patter numbers. He also showed great poise and humor when Blythe’s too vigorous stroking of his hair caused him to momentarily lose his wig.
Andrew Shore was luxury casting in the role of the multi-titled Pooh-Bah, bringing a bewildering array of voices to illustrate each of his many titles. Philip Kraus as Pish-Tush, Katharine Goeldner as Pitti-Sing, and Emily Fons as Peep-Bo rounded out a fine cast. The chorus sang well under Donald Nally’s direction, if too over-emphatically at times in music that requires a more nimble touch. As is standard for the Lyric’s operetta productions, dialogue is amplified, but the singing is not.
Amazingly, these are Sir Andrew Davis’s first Mikado performances. Here too, at times one wanted more airy textures and lightly sprung rhythms, but for the most part the Lyric’s music director drew alert and spirited playing that put across the many riches of this effervescent score with infectious enjoyment.
The Mikado runs through January 21. lyricopera.org; 312-222-2424.
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