30 March 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: A. S. Sullivan & W. S. Gilbert — THE MIKADO (M. Rowe, B. DelVecchio, G. Toft, J. Burnette, S. Albert, F. Hilliard, L. Hussey, M. E. Hirsh, A. Sealey; The Durham Savoyards Ltd., 29 March 2019)

IN REVIEW: The Durham Savoyards' March 2019 production of Gilbert's and Sullivan's THE MIKADO [Graphic © by The Durham Savoyards, Ltd.]SIR ARTHUR SEYMOUR SULLIVAN (1842 – 1900) and SIR WILLIAM SCHWENCK GILBERT (1836 – 1911): The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu — Michael Rowe (The Mikado), Brady DelVecchio (Nanki-Poo), Greg Toft (Ko-Ko), Jim Burnette (Pooh-Bah), Stuart Albert (Pish-Tush), Farren Hilliard (Yum-Yum), Lauren Hussey (Pitti-Sing), Mary Elisabeth Hirsh (Peep-Bo), Alana Sealy (Katisha); The Durham Savoy Opera Stage and Royal Choruses, The Durham Savoy Opera Orchestra; Jackson Cooper, conductor [Janell Lovelace, Producer; Derrick Ivey, Artistic Director and Choreographer; James Vollers, Set Designer; Matt Artigues, Lighting Designer; Karen Guidry, Costume Designer; Pam Guidry-Vollers, Hair and Makeup Designer; The Durham Savoyards Ltd., Carolina Theatre, Durham, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 29 March 2019]

London in 1885 must have seemed a curious place. Though she had returned to public life, Queen Victoria remained in mourning, for both her newly-dead favorite John Brown and her consort, Prince Albert, then dead for nearly a quarter-century. Irish combatants attacked the Palace of Westminster with dynamite. Two days later, Major-General Gordon was slain in Khartoum. William Gladstone was forced by the hostile defeat of a proposed budget to resign from the Prime Ministership but was reinstalled at 10 Downing Street before the year’s end. Parliamentary action legalized professional-league football. The first sanctioned cremation in the UK was performed. The Nineteenth-Century’s emblematic teeming metropolis, it was a place that often needed laughter to lighten the gloom.

Amidst the incessant turmoil of this collision of history, industry, and everyday existence, the ninth of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s and Sir William Gilbert’s theatrical collaborations was premièred at the Savoy Theatre in the Strand on 14 March 1885. The 672 performances of its inaugural production revealed that The Mikado was precisely the diversion that Londoners needed. The opera’s success was instantaneous, prolonged, and transoceanic: the longest-running of Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s Savoy operas, The Mikado reached stages throughout England and in both America and Australia by the end of 1885.

The Mikado’s path to triumph traversed uncertain terrain. Plagued by health concerns and professional disappointments, Sullivan sought solace in the composition of ‘serious’ music. Keen to recapture the acclaim of H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert intended to overcome the relative failure of 1884’s Princess Ida with a new opera based upon the premise of amorous intrigue engendered by enchantment. Unconvinced of the viability of the scenario, Sullivan declared that his partnership with Gilbert had reached its end. Gilbert was crestfallen but not defeated and by the end of May 1884 had rekindled the composer’s interest with the first draft of The Mikado.

Freed by the plot’s pseudo-exotic Japanese setting from the bane of accusations of near-defamatory satire, Gilbert sharpened the barbs of his lampooning of British society to an even greater degree in The Mikado than in any of his previous Savoy operas. Oft-repeated stories about Gilbert’s imagination having been stimulated by a Japanese sword falling from a wall and an exhibition in Knightsbridge of tableaux from Japanese culture are now known to be hyperbole, but he was unquestionably fascinated by the fanciful Japan that he conjured in his libretto. His enthusiasm for the subject ultimately seized Sullivan, inspiring the composer to create a score in which the vitality of the words is amplified by music that delights from the first note of the Overture to the final chord of the finale.

Now in their fifty-seventh season of bringing D’Oyly Carte-worthy performances of Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire to North Carolina’s Triangle region, The Durham Savoyards confirmed that observers do not need to be scholars of Victorian politics or Imperial Japan in order to savor The Mikado. Without employing over-extensive rewriting of the text as many companies do, Durham Savoyards neither blunted the cutting wit of Gilbert’s words nor disrespected the audience by ‘dumbing down’ the show’s cosmopolitan comedy.

The Mikado has been unjustly but unsurprisingly condemned for perpetuating unfortunate ethnic stereotypes, and Durham Savoyards’ production ingeniously addressed concerns about the opera’s cultural insensitivity without altering its essence by placing the action in a fashion show teetering on the brink of career-ending catastrophe. Perhaps the denizens of haute couture would not be amused, but, like Londoners in 1885, theirs is a stressful environment that would benefit greatly from an infusion of fun of the kind provided by this Mikado.

The production team assembled for The Durham Savoyards’ staging of The Mikado united an array of talented individuals whose shared vision yielded a show that earned its laughs. Too many productions of the Savoy operas sink under the dead weight of misguided attempts to make them funny. They are funny, no less so now than when they were written, and a listener who fails to react to the humor of Gilbert’s words is unlikely to be significantly more stimulated by bowdlerizations thereof. Approaching the Savoy operas as works to be performed, not rehabilitated, is a hallmark of the Durham Savoyards’ endeavors, and this Mikado’s producer, Janell Lovelace, ensured that this aesthetic permeated the show.

James Vollers’s set designs established the physical parameters of the production’s concept with clever details and clear sight lines. The prevalence of poorly-lit productions divulges that theatrical lighting is an art that is not easily mastered, but Matt Artigues devised lighting designs that artfully illuminated not just the sets and the singers occupying them but also the opera’s narrative. Likewise, Karen Guidry’s costumes and Pam Guidry-Vollers hair and makeup, integral components of any turn on the catwalk, markedly enhanced this Mikado’s visual allure. The choreography developed by Artistic Director Derrick Ivey kept both the story and its participants moving uproariously.

Under the baton of Jackson Cooper, a musical polyglot who speaks the languages of performance, administration, and criticism with equal fluency, the instrumentalists of the Durham Savoy Opera Orchestra strove mightily to fulfill the expectations raised by the ensemble’s reputation for playing Sullivan’s scores with panache more typical of London’s West End than of America’s east coast. It was a rough evening for them, faltering intonation and intermittent imprecision imperiling the performance’s overall musicality, but their dedication outweighed the defects. Cooper’s conducting of the spirited Overture was invigorating, his handling of the Allegro con brio section catapulting the spectators into the opera’s zany hubbub. In both of the opera’s acts, Cooper’s tempi were consistently ideal, allowing singers and audience to fully savor the joys of Gilbert’s words and Sullivan’s melodies. The challenges to conductors posed by the Savoy operas are in no way inferior to those of opere buffe by Rossini and Donizetti, and Cooper’s conducting of this performance of The Mikado was as satisfyingly savvy as Vittorio Gui’s much-loved Rossini interpretations.

The writing for chorus in The Mikado is a comedic nod to Britain’s centuries-long choral tradition, a tradition to which Sullivan contributed with works like The Prodigal Son, The Golden Legend, and the posthumously-premièred Boer War Te Deum. Scrutiny of the score discloses that, though obviously lighter in mood, the choral music in The Mikado lacks none of the sophistication of Sullivan’s liturgical pieces, and the efforts of the Durham Savoyards choristers displayed none of the inadequately-rehearsed, haphazard caterwauling that is sometimes substituted for proper singing.

The gentlemen of the chorus voiced ‘If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan’ in Act One with joie de vivre that was complemented by the ladies’ mellifluous delivery of ‘Comes a train of little ladies.’ These Savoyards sang ‘Behold the Lord High Executioner!’ and their lines in the manic Act One finale as though sole responsibility for the destiny of the Land of the Rising Sun rested on their shoulders. The choristers’ every utterance in Act Two was tunefully entertaining, including the occasionally-cringe-inducing ‘Mi-ya sa-ma’ that accompanies the grand entrance of Katisha and the Mikado. The ranks of Durham Savoyards’ chorus being drawn from the community facilitates the choristers’ credible depictions of communities in the company’s productions. They made this production’s incarnation of Gilbert’s town of Titipu a divertingly distinct locale.

There are instances in which the term ‘ensemble cast’ is used with a pejorative connotation, suggesting that the artists involved in a performance exhibited a uniform level of mediocrity above which none of the players managed to rise. The travesties to which many audiences are subjected notwithstanding, there is not a part in The Mikado that can wholly overcome bad singing: in this Mikado, there was case neither for singers to hide within the ensemble nor for any deficiencies to be vanquished.

Among the ladies, Lauren Hussey was a Pitti-Sing who sang as engagingly as she acted, voicing her parts in both the trio with Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah and the subsequent madrigal with sweet-natured incisiveness. Mary Elisabeth Hirsh’s Peep-Bo was also a vivid presence, her lines in the famous ‘Three little maids from school are we’ sung with firm, focused tone and comedic alertness.

Most of the Savoy operas have a pivotal contralto rôle, often a feisty lady of a certain age who does not shrink from telling her comrades what’s what. In The Mikado, the low-voiced lady with first love and then vengeance on her mind is Katisha, brought to life in Durham Savoyards’s Mikado by Alana Sealy. She declaimed Katisha’s futile plea of ‘Your revels cease, assist me, all of you!’ in the Act One finale with exasperation, and her entrance with the Mikado in Act Two lent credence to her being described as ‘something appalling.’ There was nothing appalling about her vocalism in the Andante moderato song ‘Hearts do not break,’ however, and she duetted ebulliently with Ko-Ko in ‘There is beauty in the bellow of the blast.’ Formidable when her maneuvering was thwarted but touchingly vulnerable when lamenting her amorous miadventures, Sealy’s Katisha was a potent feminine force, not a caricatured crone.

Stuart Albert and Jim Burnette matched their colleagues’ work with riotously funny portrayals of Pish-Tush and Pooh-Bah. In the former rôle, Albert phrased his Act One song with chorus, ‘Our great Mikado, virtuous man,’ with apt pomposity, and his singing of ‘I heard one day a gentleman say’ in the trio with Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah was musically and dramatically pleasing. Burnette’s Pooh-Bah was a rippingly persuasive Lord High Everything Else despite the weakness of the singer’s ascents above the stave. His account of the minuet song ‘Young man, despair’ was appropriately disheartening, and he articulated the line ‘I think you ought to recollect’ with perfect hubris. In the trio with Ko-Ko and Pish-Tush and throughout the performance, Burnette’s strong singing was enjoyably droll.

The title rôle in this Mikado was taken by Michael Rowe, who arrived in Act Two with a majestic traversal of ‘From ev’ry kind of man obedience I expect’ that disclosed at once that his opinion of himself was as exalted as his position. Rowe’s demeanor was delectably imperious but undeniably charismatic: he was the sort of Mikado whose authority was surely a product of seniority rather than superiority. Rowe’s extensive experience as a Savoyard was especially apparent in his performance of the brilliant song with chorus ‘A more humane Mikado never did in Japan exist,’ initially cut by Gilbert and Sullivan during rehearsals for the opera’s first performance but thankfully reinstated at the eleventh hour. Rowe’s robust singing reflected the Mikado’s social stature, completing a peevishly charismatic portrait of the character.

Lyric tenor Brady DelVecchio embodied the youthful verve and idealism that Nanki-Poo should possess. From the start of his recitative ‘Gentlemen, I pray you tell me’ in Act One, DelVecchio sang with dulcet tone and total dramatic involvement. The character’s beguiling song with chorus ‘A wand’ring minstrel I’ received from the tenor a performance of unforced merriment, legitimizing Katisha’s infatuation with him. In the duet with Yum-Yum, he suffused ‘Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted’ with a young lover’s disillusionment. ‘The flowers that bloom in the spring,’ was winsomely sung, DelVecchio’s voice blossoming at the top of the stave. Much of Nanki-Poo’s music inhabits the tenor’s passaggio, increasing the rôle’s difficulties, particularly for young singers. DelVecchio braved the music’s demands with skill and poise to spare, his Nanki-Poo emerging as a bona fide romantic lead.

The Mikado’s heroine Yum-Yum has typically been sung by light-voiced sopranos like Clara Dow and Valerie Masterson. As written, Yum-Yum’s music is not high by conventional operatic standards, but it was a novelty to hear the part sung by a fuller voice. Lyric soprano Farren Hilliard brought a refreshing ‘girl next door’ aura to the part, giving the much-parodied ‘Three little maids from school are we’ a hint of mischief. The soprano’s diction lacked clarity in ensembles, and she sporadically lacked her colleagues’s assurance in dialogue. She was impetuous passion personified in her exchanges with Nanki-Poo, though, and her singing in the Act One finale imparted the same smiling confidence that shone on her face.

Hilliard was most in her element in the lovely Andante commodo song in Act Two, ‘The sun, whose rays are all ablaze,’ and the madrigal, both of which she phrased with consummate grace. As she, DelVecchio, and Toft sang it, the kinship of the trio ‘Here’s a how-de-do!’ with a similar number for Marie, Tonio, and Sulpice in Act Two of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment was evident. The adolescent awkwardness of Hilliard’s portrayal intensified the contrast between Yum-Yum and Katiska, giving them profiles as opposite as Dvořák’s Rusalka and Cizí kněžna. There is little dramatic depth to Yum-Yum, but Hilliard made the character atypically wily and independent.

Greg Toft made Titipu’s Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko a complex, maddening, and curiously magnetic figure whose foibles were all the more amusing for being recognizably universal. The demands of the Act One Allegro marziale song with chorus ‘Taken from the county jail by a set of curious chances’ were exuberantly met, the voice pealing through the difficult writing with exultant ease. Textually, Ko-Ko’s song with chorus ‘As someday it may happen that a victim must be found’ is one of the most problematic pieces in the score, its words troubling to Twenty-First-Century audiences, but Toft and Durham Savoyards cunningly circumnavigated the song’s pitfalls. In the trio with Pish-Tush and Pooh-Bah, Toft voiced his lines with unmistakable ego.

The Act Two trio with Pitti-Sing and Pooh-Bah was one of the performance’s highlights, Toft’s singing of ‘The criminal cried as he dropp’d him down’ galvanizing the ensemble. The Andante espressivo song ‘On a tree by a river a little tom tit sang’ is arguably the best-known number in The Mikado, and the duet with Katisha that follows is perhaps the finest of Sullivan’s music in the score. The jocularity of the scene was not overlooked, but, responding to the quality of the music, Toft rightly concentrated on producing gratifying sounds. He succeeded, and the Lord High Executioner’s impact was all the more cutting for it.

Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s Savoy operas are frequently presented as farces, especially in America, where they fall victim to directors who deem their humor ‘too British’ for Yankee audiences. Letting Gilbert and Sullivan have their say without ‘translation’ (and—praise them!—without feigned British accents), Durham Savoyards’ production of The Mikado affirmed that comedy is most effective when the artists bringing it to life take it seriously. This was a Mikado that was unafraid of frivolity, but its greatest virtue was its exploration of the inherent comedy in extraordinary things happening to thoroughly ordinary people.