No, not my first Mikado. But the Chautauqua Opera Company version that opened Friday night in Norton Hall was my first in 14 years. Quite a hiatus for a piece as formerly famous as this.
There was a time when the works of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan sprouted like daisies across the English-speaking world. A case could be made for them as instruments of Anglophone global unity — specifically Anglophone inasmuch as Gilbert’s spot-on comedic verse and Sullivan’s effervescent music provided a model for British and North American musicals in the 20th century.
If the “Savoy operas” are now less commonly seen — the last Chautauqua presentation of The Mikado was in 2001 — they remain indestructibly stageworthy. Such was the lesson of this high-spirited, aggressively updated production on loan from Opera Memphis.
How aggressively updated? During the overture a geisha reverently placed a model of a quaint Japanese home on the floor, downstage center. Then entered another extra, dressed in a Godzilla suit, and stomped on it. No one could accuse stage director Ned Canty of a weakness for understatement.
Indeed, the opening minutes of the show confronted the audience with a riot of modern Japanese icons (if we are careful to include appropriations of Western culture as characteristically Japanese in their own right). The nobles of the opening chorus were dark-suited “salarymen” with attaché cases singing below neon corporate logos, the “Hard Rock Titipu” largest among them.
Japanese script was mixed, as so often in Tokyo, with Western lettering. A well-upholstered sumo wrestler cut quite a figure and a giant Pikachu soon enough made an entry. The last of Hello Kitty’s many appearances involved her (somehow good-humored) dismemberment and removal on a stretcher.
To harrumph at all this is complicated because intervention itself is part of the Savoy tradition. It would have been strange — a violation, really — for the Lord High Executioner’s “I’ve Got a Little List” in Act 1 not to include topical references to the likes of Pokémon Go and the Donald Trump campaign. These added couplets were expertly interwoven with Gilbert’s originals and articulated to perfection by bass Kevin Burdette (dressed, either despite or because of his station, in a Victorian morning suit with no Japanese overtones).
Surtitles, for the first time in my experience, were used as an active element in the comedy. The hashtag “#URonthelist” appeared during the aforementioned aria and some fun was had with idiosyncratic typography of the “art alone endures” motto above the Norton proscenium. During The Mikado’s Act 2 “let the punishment fit the crime” aria (zesty if not word-perfect as sung by bass Hans Tashjian) there appeared a lengthy explanation of his now-obscure reference to “parliamentary trains” — at which the characters laughed in unison after they took a moment to crane their heads upward and read it.
There were many other sardonic touches: enough, perhaps, to fuel a complete Gilbert and Sullivan cycle. Physical comedy was abundant. Might less have been more? Burdette was often in mugging and twitching mode. Baritone Daniel Belcher, another guest artist, as the multitasking Pooh-Bah whooped many lines archly that might have been even funnier spoken dry.
Or so it seemed from my seat. From all the others the laughter was robust and continuous. In any case, a subject on which there could be nothing but unanimity was the high musical standards that prevailed under the baton of company artistic and general director Steven Osgood. Casting was consistently apt, a situation for which music administrator and chorus master Carol Rausch also deserves credit. The lovely madrigal of Act 2 bringing together Yum-Yum (soprano Chelsea Miller), Pitti-Sing (mezzo-soprano Rachael Braunstein), Nanki-Poo (tenor Quinn Bernegger) and Pish-Tush (baritone Brian James Myer) bore testimony to the strength of Chautauqua’s roster of young artists.
It should be noted that Nanki-Poo, the wandering minstrel who is in fact the crown prince in disguise, was done up as an Elvis impersonator. Happily, Bernegger was fresh enough as a singer and actor to sustain the heavy costuming (although the King was clearly a baritone).
Worth a special mention was Deanna Pauletto as Katisha, the jilted “daughter-in-law elect.” A fine mezzo-soprano whose voice will probably ripen further, she was a natural actress who could make this figure of ridicule both sympathetic and scary. Osgood, generally fond of upbeat tempos, kept all of the above nicely balanced with his handsome-sounding Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra — another case of luxury casting to those who remember the amateur Gilbert and Sullivan norm.
No contemporary review of The Mikado would be complete without a mention of the controversy (or pseudo-controversy) surrounding its apparent violation of cultural sensitivities. In fact, Gilbert’s Japan is a fantasy world that lays little claim to authenticity while creating a picturesque forum for satire of the British social norms of his day. It is not clear how loading the stage with contemporary clichés (Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams designed this set originally for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis) in any way mitigates the potential for offense.
Oh, well. Judging by the cheers with which this energetic performance was met, few if any in the audience were pondering its politics. Mostly they were having what the British audiences who embraced The Mikado wholeheartedly at its 1885 premiere would have called without hesitation a jolly good time.
Arthur Kaptainis is the classical music critic for the Montreal Gazette and formerly for the National Post. He also writes for Opera Canada and Musical Toronto, and is heard from time to time on CBC Radio Two.