Jonathan Millers 1986 production of The Mikado (currently being revived at ENO for its 25th anniversary) plays on the idea that Gilberts libretto, despite being set in Japan, is really about the English. Whilst Gilbert claimed that the operetta tells the story of an imaginary monarch of a remote period and that it has no relation at all to any existing institution, G.K. Chesterton argued that although none of the jokes in the play fit the Japanese, all the jokes in the play fit the English.
With this idea in mind, Miller transplants the setting of the operetta into the grounds of a 1930s English hotel. The set and costumes are stylishly monochrome, reflecting the early modernist architecture style of the period. Combined with bright stage lighting, these gave the production a light and airy feel, which works well with Sullivans sprightly scoring. Whilst this is undoubtedly an intelligent and thought-provoking idea, much of the original humour of the libretto comes from the idea that the English are removing themselves from the joke a concept which doesnt really come across in this production.
What the production does convey, however, is an overwhelming sense of fun. The chorus of schoolgirls, nobles and officials were augmented by a team of twelve dancers in the guise of hotel staff. Astoundingly energetic choreography, combined with the obvious enthusiasm of the dancers, added an excitement to the chorus scenes which would not have been attainable with singers alone. These numbers were a true visual delight. The dancers reappeared throughout the production carrying out various domestic tasks in the background, and injected these small contributions with liberal doses of humour. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Brightly dawns our wedding day, which often falls flat when played as a straight madrigal despite beautiful singing from the principals, it was the dancers that held the focus in this scene, stealing the limelight again and again in an increasingly funny series of events.
Sophie Bevan bubbled with energy throughout her delightful performance as Yum-Yum, her girlish demeanour and enthusiasm neatly balancing her fruity and mellow soprano, light enough to convey youthful innocence, but mature enough to clearly express Yum-Yums heartfelt devotion to Nanki-Poo (Alfie Boe). Boes warm and expressive tenor lent itself admirably to Nanki-Poos lovestruck contributions, but particularly noteworthy is the astonishing blend that the two singers produce during their duet scenes. Bevan and Boe both possess beautifully open and rounded voices, which match each other perfectly in timbre, tone and colour, serving to heighten the already electric chemistry between the two characters.
Anne-Marie Owens as Katisha, the attention-seeking and deeply misunderstood fiance of Nanki-Poo, commanded the stage in her extravagant and glamorous costume, and her rich and dusky voice brought real pathos to Katishas desperate arias. Richard Angas as the Mikado was imposing yet simultaneously jovial and laid-back, with a weighty baritone matching his new-found figure (greatly enlarged by the costume department). Donald Maxwell made a hilarious and haughty Pooh-Bah, his rich and resonant baritone coupled with his booming Scottish speaking voice asserting his authority as the Lord High Everything Else.
In the smaller roles, Claudia Huckles colourful and warm mezzo-soprano, combined with punchy and well-delivered dialogue, added deep interest to the role of Pitti-Sing. Together with Bevan and Fiona Canfield, pretty in voice and demeanour as Peep-Bo, the three little maids formed an engaging trio. William Allenby, another solid baritone, was a confident Pish-Tush; his eccentric costume (which included knee-high socks and a dog collar) matched by his highly charged and eclectic performance.
Standing out for sheer energy amongst the principals was Richard Suart as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. Excellent diction in both his dialogue and arias made his character instantly accessible, but even more impressive was his comic timing, which he has down to a fine art. His rendition of Ive got a little list, rewritten to cover topical issues, was delivered with great energy and panache, leaving the audience just enough time to process the humour before emerging with a new joke. In the original run of this production, the role was taken by Eric Idle, and whilst Suart has drawn some aspects from his interpretation, he injects another level of humour which is all his own.
The ENO orchestra, under Peter Robinsons direction, treated the score as seriously as they would a grand opera seria, and it was refreshing to hear Sullivans beautiful melodies played with the respect and feeling they deserve. Ensemble was occasionally patchy during recitatives and patter arias, but generally the interplay between the pit and the stage was excellent, with the orchestra unfailingly matching the energy of the performers on stage throughout each scene.
Overall this is an excellent production with a very strong cast and chorus; each performer radiates enjoyment, and an energetic musical interpretation of this classic score ensures that the spirits of all in the auditorium are elevated.