Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado / Castles-onion, Butel, Breen, Fiebig, Fyfe, Dark

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SULLIVAN The Mikado Brian Castles-Onion, cond; Richard Alexander ( Mikado ); Kaneen Breen ( Nanki-Poo ); Mitchell Butel ( Ko-Ko ); Warwick Fyfe ( Pooh-Bah ); Taryn Fiebig ( Yum-Yum ); Jacqueline Dark ( Katisha ); Op Australia Ch; Victoria O OPERA AUSTRALIA Z56016CD (2 CDs: 88:00)

Every time I listen to Gilbert and Sullivan I find myself “whistling all the airs to that infernal nonsense,” in this case, Mikado . Well, not whistling actually; I don’t whistle well, but those airs do run around in my head for days and days. The Mikado is one of G&S’s cleverest and most tuneful works for the stage and that makes it one of the best operettas in the English language. Like Offenbach’s French satires, Gilbert’s librettos don’t translate quite as brilliantly to other languages, for the reason that he not only pokes fun at British customs and institutions, he satirizes the English language itself. Sullivan’s infernally catchy tunes, however, translate just fine. You can hum them in French or German or Swahili, and many do. Long the patent-holder of all Gilbert and Sullivan material, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company did posterity no favors by declining to video-record its classic productions, in the fear that the videos would help put them out of business. Well, D’Oyly Carte went out of business anyway, after some hundred years of nurturing and protecting the G&S legacy, but for those of us who never attended a live performance, opportunities to see traditional, well-sung airings of the G&S canon with just the right British comedic insouciance are few and far between.

Happily, we have one such here. Opera Australia imported this 1985 production from Sadler’s Wells and video-recorded it once before, in 1987 (see Barry Brenesal’s review in Fanfare 35:4). Now the Aussies have dusted it off and trotted it out again with a new cast and generally excellent results. G&S depends on comedic timing and delivery (as well as many other things) to make an effect, and here two of the principals, the Ko-Ko of Mitchell Butel and the Nanki-Poo of Kanen Breen, are both very good and very funny (they both sing pretty well, too). Breen reminds me a bit of Bill Murray’s wisecracking, streetwise army buddy in Stripes , a little more hip than your usual Nanki-Poo, but very entertaining. The third male principal, Warwick Fyfe as Pooh-Bah, is not to the comedic manor born, but he turns in a solid performance, and Gilbert’s clever witticisms do most of the work for him. The three little maids in this production have none of them been schoolgirls for quite some time, but the Yum-Yum of Taryn Fiebig is sung solidly and she more than holds up her end in the comedic dialog. There are several other roles of relative importance in The Mikado and they are all performed very competently here. The Katisha, Jacqueline Dark, actually stars in the extra feature on the disc. We watch while she sits and prattles on while being made up as the rather fearsome daughter-in-law-elect. The sets and costumes just about steal the show; they are traditional, lavish, and colorful. Jugs and ewers of all types and sizes dominate the décor. Pooh-Bah seems to reside, or at least travel in, a large colorful wardrobe. It is all a bit silly, but great fun. Ko-Ko’s “list” song has been modernized to somewhat dubious effect, and one or two other Aussie verbal modifications sneak in without really hurting the show.

Actually, I misled you in the opening paragraph, for The Mikado is the one G&S work for which the D’Oyly Carte Company did make a video, for some unknown reason. Still available on VAI, it displays all of the company’s great artistry and impeccable timing honed over years and years of public performances. Not only do they all know how to deliver a comedic line, they know to anticipate audience reaction and pause perfectly for it. Unfortunately, the production is filmed without an audience present, and the D’Oyly Carte forces seem a little thrown off by it. The 1966 video stars as Ko-Ko a young John Reed, the best G&S comedic performer of his time and possibly of all time. He is a treat to watch and he definitely will be missed. The company was known in The Mikado for its snapping fan work; they actually brought in Japanese women before the premiere to show the company how to use the fans, and show the women how to walk properly. All of that is still on display in 1966. The VAI production is a classic that belongs in any G&S fan’s library. Avoid the 1982 Brent Walker production (and just about all of them for the other works as well). There is a fascinating 1939 film still available on DVD that uses several D’Oyly Carte performers of the era, including Martyn Greene, John Reed’s predecessor and highly regarded himself. This Opera Australia release is a worthy successor to the D’Oyly Carte tradition; it is funny, highly entertaining, and captures the work in much better quality video and sound than previously, especially enjoyable on Blu-ray high definition.

FANFARE: Bill White

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: OPOZ56016CD

  • UPC: 5060266600258

  • Label: Opera Australia

  • Composer: Arthur Sullivan

  • Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Opera Australia Chorus, Victoria Orchestra

  • Performer: Jacqueline Dark, Kaneen Breen, Michell Butel, Richard Alexander, Taryn Fiebig, Warwick Fyfe