A largely enjoyable “Mikado” this, at Lyric Opera

Tue Dec 07, 2010 at 4:34 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Stephanie Blythe as Katisha and James Morris in the title role in the Lyric Opera’s “The Mikado.” Photo: Dan Rest.

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.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “A largely enjoyable “Mikado” this, at Lyric Opera”

  1. Posted Dec 09, 2010 at 12:04 am by Chuck Burkhead

    My impressions were very similar to yours, especially on the ‘serious tone’ that seemed to inhabit the first 15 minutes or so. It took a while get into the fun and spirit of the work but everything clicked well later.

    The costumes, sets, lighting, etc. all worked effectively with the setting. One discordant note: The Nanki-Poo outfit just didn’t work, almost seemed a visual distraction with the orange hair, Mad Hatter hat with feather,golf-like pants patten, tie, etc. Whatever a Second Trombone with shreds and patches is supposed to look like isn’t THIS cheap tailor. It looked like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat–almost cloned and inconsistent with the ‘look/design’ of the production.

    It was hard to figure out the words to the List Song from where I was sitting but it was rather banal and twee (when I read it in this review today; those around me in the upper balcony seemed to have the same ‘what did he say’ problem as well). The audience reaction seemed very tepid, restrained in contrast to the many productions that I’ve attended. The production could have used a bit more comedic energy at this point to offset the somber, rather ponderous tone that began the production—certainly warmed up later and hit its stride.

    I agree with you about the splendid voices, crisp diction, acting skills, spare but effective staging and nice costumes. Ms. Blythe was a vocal and comedic delight but more radiant than menacing which was a very minor disappointment dramatically—-and think that she did about four costume changes (?) and always looked almost radiant. Minor quibble. Almost knocking off Ko-Ko’s wig and the adroit recovery was a small gem by two very polished professionals.

    The recognition of Sir Andrew’s contributions to Lyric Opera–and Chicago–at the end of the opera was a nice coda to a wonderful evening at Lyric.

    Hope the Mikado makes a return before another 27 years.

    Chuck Burkhead

  2. Posted Dec 15, 2010 at 1:29 am by Paul Korngold

    Sorry to say, I found Gary Griffin’s lackluster direction a major disappointment lost in a satisfying musical experience in Lyric’s Mikado. The staging of many of the well known songs was flat and uninspired.

    The “I am so Proud” trio showed no interest in the wonderful polyphony; “Here’s a How-de-doo”, which should stop the show, was decidedly lackluster with NO encore; and the charming “The Flowers that Bloom in Spring” had the five characters just standing still like an oratorio. Mr. Griffin needs some ideas and a choreographer.

    I also must say that while I don’t mind the operetta being set in the 20’s, at least the stage make-up could have attempted something Asian. The characters looked European and where’s the fun in psuedo-Japanese characters pretending to be European if they already are. Frankly, the sets and costumes, which are very attractive, seem only to be there to stroke the genius and ego of the designer.

    Wonderful performances save the production from being a complete disaster. Ms. Blythe literally steals the show as the most powefully vocal Katisha I’ve ever heard. Andrew Shore is wonderfully pompous as Pooh-Bah, and the two lovers of Mr. Spence and Ms. Chruchman are ardent and ravishing in vocalism. I agree with the previous commentator on the ugliness and absurdity of Mr. Spence’s entire look; only theater designers can take an attractive romantic lead and make him look ludicrous!

    Philip Kraus is luxury casting as Pish Tush; every word of his opening song crystal clear. Katherine Goeldner is a bit too pushy for my taste as Pitti-Sing, but sings it gloriously. Emily Fons apparently doesn’t understand the humor of her major dialogue scene; perhaps I should say that Mr. Griffin doesn’t understand it.

    James Morris might have made a great Mikado in his heyday, but the voice sounds tired and in no way eclipses the Mikado of Donald Adams whose bloodcurdling screams were legendary. And Neal Davies, a wonderful musician with a lovely voice, is simply not daffy enough for Ko-Ko. He plays the character too straight and when all is said and done, he’s not much fun.

    Andrew Davis conducts the show with panache, if at times a little too slow on the Overture.
    And he rushes through Katisha’s Act 1 climax shamelessly.

    So modified rapture!!

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