|W.S. Gilbert (Joshua Miller), Richard D'Oyly Carte (Matthew Wages), and Arthur Sullivan (David Macaluso)
(photo by Carol Rosegg)
We need not have worried. Whatever offensive material that was extirpated from the original "really won't be missed". This version succeeded on every level and can be recommended without reservation. Director David Auxier's concept is a framing device that brought to mind Mike Leigh's fascinating film from 1999--Topsy Turvy--which showed the trials and tribulations that underpinned the seemingly effortless oeuvre of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Today, in similar fashion, a full year of labor and much consulting and compromising with a mostly Asian advisory board were not visible in the finished product. What the audience gets is a lengthy evening of effervescent entertainment that flew by in double time. Part of the credit goes to the prodigious talents of composer Arthur Sullivan and librettist W.S. Sullivan. The rest goes to Mr. Auxier's concept and a lot of hard, but invisible, work.
In a clever framing device, we get a glimpse of the interaction among Gilbert, Sullivan, and impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte. There are petty squabbles and negotiations plus various complaints from the members of the D'Oyly Carte company. A case of writer's block is solved when Gilbert gets knocked out by a falling sword which D'Oyly Carte has brought back from a London exhibit of Japanalia. As we recall, in the Victorian period, Great Britain was fascinated by the recent opening of trade with Japan.
The blow to Gilbert's head leads him to imagining all of the cultural inconsistencies of his own nation grafted onto a mythic Japan. The Mikado is the result. Gilbert's skill always lay in satirizing the ridiculous bureaucracy, sexual prudery and cultural inconsistencies of his time and place. Moreover he did so by skillfully using his native language in a manner that has never been equalled.
Sullivan brought to the table a banquet of musical gifts. The tunes are infinitely hummable and we dare anyone to attend without humming a few of them all the way home and on into the night and next day. His rhythms are infectious and, to appreciate his consummate compositional skills, we recommend listening to the harmonies and overlapping voices of "Young Man Despair" sung in Act I by Pooh-Bah, Nanki-Poo, and Pish-Tush--or the "merry madrigal" of Act II.
Once the prologue ends, the opera begins and scenic elements and characters from the Prologue are transformed. D'Oyly Carte becomes the ambitious Pooh-Bah (sung by baritone Matthew Wages). Sullivan becomes Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko (sung by baritone David Macaluso), and Gilbert becomes Pish-Tush (sung by baritone Joshua Miller). The men are dressed in Victorian fashion but with Japanese fabrics and accoutrements. Gilbert carries a notebook and we are never allowed to forget that he is writing his libretto in his head. This work, like others of Gilbert and Sullivan, examines British mores and institutions and ridicules them. It is not at all unusual in the world of opera for plots to be transposed to other countries or other epochs. It is easier to look at oneself from afar!
Tenor Daniel Greenwood made a splendid Nanki-Poo and impressed with his delivery of "A Wondering Minstrel I"; soprano Sarah Caldwell Smith made a winsome Yum-Yum, his love interest. We enjoyed her aria "The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze". It was a memorable performance, both vocally and dramatically.
The "Three Little Maids From School" trio is always a delight. Ms. Smith was joined by the lovely soprano Alexandra Haines as Peep-Bo and mezzo-soprano Amy Maude Helfer as Pitti-Sing who contributed greatly to the complicated execution plot, balancing the male voices.
Caitlin Burke brought the house down as the angry and violent Katisha, chiming in with her "daughter-in-law elect", infuriating the Mikado. There was something very touching about her softening when Ko-Ko wins her hand by singing "Willow, Tit-Willow".
Chris White electrified the proceedings with large booming tones as he related ways to "let the punishment fit the crime". He had suitably magisterial presence while keeping the humor going.
All of the singers seem to have experience in opera as well as musical theater and brought both excellent voices and convincing acting skills to the production. Mr. Auxier's direction and choreography could not have been better. The sets by Anshuman Bhatia were simple (a mountainous scene as backdrop and two shoji-screened rooms); the lighting by Benjamin Weill was dramatic.