You have to be quite silly to take Gilbert and Sullivan seriously. But even sillier not to. G&S is still a litmus test for a particularly British type of operatic snobbery: ‘Is there a place for Gilbert and Sullivan in the 21st century?’ asked a Radio 3 presenter last year, about the time that ENO’s new Pirates of Penzance broke all audience records for live cinema relays in the UK. The Royal Opera, of course, won’t touch it. Which, considering how comprehensively it botched Chabrier’s L’Étoile, is probably just as well.
Scottish Opera’s new Mikado is very silly indeed. Nanki-Poo (Nicholas Sharratt) simpers and lisps like Gussie Fink-Nottle. A puppet bird flaps its wings to ‘Willow, titwillow’. Bottoms are slapped, parasols twirled and a roast chicken is hurled across the stage. It all begins during the overture, when a conjuring trick performed behind brass footlights by Richard Suart’s spivvy Ko-Ko goes gorily, hilariously wrong. From then on everything’s played between enormous inverted commas: G&S as music hall, laughing at Western stereotypes of Japan as much as at the Victorian hypocrisies that Gilbert so loved to skewer.
The genius of Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production — and Dick Bird’s spectacular designs play a big part in its success — is the way it caters to traditionalists and iconoclasts alike. ‘We are gentlemen of Japan,’ sings a chorus of severed heads: droll, and brilliantly sick. Katisha sweeps in like the Queen of the Night on the crest of Hokusai’s Great Wave, a gothic vision in a black fright wig. Prefer your Mikados old school? They’ve got all the kimonos and paper screens you could ask for. The costumes alone are huge fun. They’re literally half-British, half-Japanese, and part of the game is to spot the white spats under Ko-Ko’s robe, or the moment when Pooh-Bah’s fan opens to reveal a copy of the Times. If you can’t relish the sheer bizarreness of watching the Mikado (Stephen Richardson) dressed like Sir Joseph Porter KCB but in ferocious Samurai facepaint, delicately dropping sugar lumps into his cup of tea, this production probably isn’t for you. The laughter from the audience was near-continuous.
Is this it, then? A 21st-century Mikado to succeed Jonathan Miller’s 30-year-old ENO production? It shares one tremendous asset with ENO’s most recent revival: Richard Suart’s Ko-Ko, an interpretation that ought to be registered as a national comic treasure in the Ken Dodd class. The rubbery Max Wall face, the wheedling cockney whine, and, of course, his updated ‘little list’ (Nicola Sturgeon headed it tonight): this was Suart’s show, and none the worse for it.
Perhaps that’s unfair. Rebecca Bottone’s Yum-Yum led her three little maids like the head prefect of a gang of public-school Riot Grrrls, Andrew Shore was an enjoyably stiff Pooh-Bah and Rebecca de Pont Davies, as Katisha, delivered the most exciting singing in an evening that was bigger on comedy than on vocal beauty. ENO’s Pirates showed how good G&S can sound when it’s sung like Verdi: this Mikado wasn’t helped, either, by an orchestra under Derek Clark that sounded for most of Act One as though they’d decided just to bash it out and get it over with. Smarten that up and Scottish Opera (plus its co-producers, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company) could have a hit on their hands.
Four hundred miles away, and using costumes that looked as though they were left over from Aladdin, Guildford Opera Company presented an uncomplicated Orientalist double bill of Bizet’s Djamileh and Weber’s Abu Hassan. They could have done with a little complication — the sexual politics of Djamileh, in particular, make Madama Butterfly look like The Handmaid’s Tale. A light-voiced tenor, Jack Tebbutt, gamely tried to inject some charm into Bizet’s basically detestable hero, while Alexia Mankovskaya brought pathos to her lovelorn slavegirl. But with no real Pearl Fishers moments and a piano accompaniment replacing Bizet’s pistachio-and-rosewater orchestration, you did have to wonder why they’d bothered.
Abu Hassan was better, thanks to a sparky turn from soprano Laura Cheetham, who played the hero’s wife Fatima like the little sister of Mozart’s Susanna. The central trio of characters connected, the comedy bubbled nicely, and the uncomfortable fact that the whole thing is set in Baghdad receded into the background. The director, Kevin John, deserves credit for that, and after all, it wasn’t so very far removed from what David McVicar did with Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Glyndebourne last year, albeit with bigger voices, better sets, an orchestra; whatever. That’s not the point. The point is that in a medium-sized town outside the M25 enough amateur opera lovers cared sufficiently about two rarely heard operas to make this happen. Similar companies exist across the UK. And amid all the recent media bluster about the future of opera, that’s something that you won’t have heard anyone mention.