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.