We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, December 31, 2016


W.S. Gilbert (Joshua Miller), Richard D'Oyly Carte (Matthew Wages), and Arthur Sullivan (David Macaluso)
(photo by Carol Rosegg)
For us, art and music of quality are what it's all about; we confess to care not a whit for political correctness and we resent tampering with the classics.  We approached New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players' new production of The Mikado with a great deal of trepidation.

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.

Sarah Caldwell Smith, Amy Maude Helfer, and Alexandra Haines (photo by Carol Rosegg)

The costumes made a huge impression. The women all wore brightly colored Victorian dresses with the scaffolding of the bustles uncovered by fabric. We always knew we were in Victorian England--watching a fantasy of Japan.

The orchestra, under the baton of Music Director Aaron Gandy, led an adequate reading of the score. Some of the patter songs were taken at a slower tempo than that to which we are accustomed. But that was, on the whole, a good thing, permitting us to understand more of the words.

And this brings us to the sole criticism of a near-perfect evening. The enunciation was far from perfect and we missed a great deal of Gilbert's clever wordplay. We have always thought that English was the most difficult language to make comprehensible but, on occasion we have heard singers make every word clear, even within the upper register. Titles would have been welcome.

Lest we leave you readers with the impression that the political correctness was a novel idea, we beg to inform you that objections have been made and corrective changes instituted since the work was premiered, although a Japanese prince came to see the work in 1886 and took no offense. There has been quite a lot of back-and-forth on this issue for over a century. Gilbert himself made observations of a Japanese community in Knightsbridge to learn how the inhabitants dressed and walked and gestured.

Nonetheless, we know of no other production that created a prologue of this nature and it certainly put a novel emphasis on the work without losing its sense of fun. Props to all involved!

There will be several more performances and you will be well advised to try and snag a ticket to this excellent production.  It is always worthwhile to see an old work with fresh eyes.

(c) meche kroop

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