21 January 2013

The Mikado at the ENO

I have never been a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan despite a reasonable amount of exposure to it in my school years. Then I was not a fan of any opera, though I had a fondness for traditional musicals as brought to me by Ian Charmichael. on Radio 2.

The ENO has been presenting Jonathan Miller's production since1986 and it has become something of a classic. Friends of mine have been to see it and liked it so this year I thought that I would finally give it a go.

I gave it a good go too and opted for front row seats in the upper circle. That £60 on a show I had doubts about.

From the very opening the quality of the production hits you.

The set is simple and bleached white. The lack of props told me what I wanted to hear, that this is an opera that tells the story with words rather than tricks.

The costumes follow this theme and are mostly black and white with things like French Maids outfits. There is also a slightly disturbing scene with young school girls in their St Trinians garb (but without the threatening hockey sticks). Remember, this is an old production and our attitudes to women and young girls have changed a little since then.

The story is as silly as you would expect when the characters have names like Yum-Yum, Pooh-Bah and Peep-Bo.

A wandering minstrel arrives in a small town search of a young girl he fell in love with on his last visit.

Unfortunately she is due to be married the next day to the town's executioner.

And he is under pressure from his masters to have an execution. No prizes for guessing who he thinks of.

Other loves, other interests and other characters mix in to the plot but it never gets that complicated, and nor does it need to. The centre of the opera is the fun it pokes at officials and officialdom, such as the dignitary who has a host of official titles and has different opinions according to which one he is acting in at any moment.

The story evolved nicely and was acted wonderfully with the over-the-top Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, being the obvious star.

So far it all sounds very good but there was one flaw, and it was a big one.

Almost all of the singing was weak.

I have followed other operas sung in English at the ENO with just a few glances at the sur titles to check on what I've heard but for The Mikado I was reading them constantly and it is very hard to follow what is going on on the stage if your eyes are permanently watching the script run above it.

This is a particular issue for operas like The Mikado where the songs have very little repetition and the vocabulary is decidedly dated at times so many of the words are not immediately recognisable.

You cannot do a good opera without good singing and, despite all the other good stuff, the singing let this one down badly.

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