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FEATURED SELECTION: Highlights from Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado ....

The MHS Review 396 Vol. 11, No. 18, 1988

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David M. Greene


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Because in my younger days I was a musical snob, I had to wait until l was past 60 to really discover Gilbert and Sullivan. My sole serious en­counter with them was a filmed Mikado in the late '30s or early '40s, featuring the inevitable D'Oyly Carte troupe with Kenny Baker as Nanki­-Poo. My latter-day illumination came when my spouse was called on six years ago to costume an ongoing series of G & S productions for the local Muhlenberg College Summer Theater Pro­gram. Not sutprisingly the series began with Mikado, and rumor has it that to Mikado it will return next July.

The Mikado, or The Town of Titupu (to give it its full and proper title) was the team's ninth opera. It was by all odds the most successful of the series. According to Geoffrey Smith (The Savoy Operas, London, 1983), to whom I am in­debted for my facts and statistics, it ran longer initially than any of the others (672 perfor­mances), was the only one to win acceptance in non-English-speaking countries, and remains the favorite.

Is The Mikado racist? Is it another example of imperialistic British feelings of superiority to "the lesser breeds without the law"? Does it de­mean the Japanese? To be sure the costumes were modeled on the real thing--or at least made of Japanese silk. Pertinent information was ob­tained from participants in the Japanese exhibi­tion then in London, and Sullivan is said to have used a Japanese melody for his opening chorus. But the fact is (such matters apart) that the opera is about as Japanese as Winston Churchill. What has, besides the music, kept it alive is its univer­sal send-up of bureaucracy and its delicious nonsense.

Many people, with good reason, shed real tears when the D'Oyly Carte Company expired a few years ago, for it had scrupulously preserved the performance traditions established by Gilbert himself. But to say that it had maintained a stranglehold on at least our concept of the operas is close to the truth. What we have in this record is a reflection of new ideas--specifically of Jonathan Miller's innovative production for the English National Opera, though the quasi-­Edwardian costumes, for example, do not come through in the music.

What is noticeable, for better or worse, however, are textual changes. Ko-Ko's "little list" number, for instance, has been almost whol­ly updated. And there are inexplicable individual changes: why, for instance, in the Mikado's list of punishments, is the offending lady to have her face blackened with raspberry instead of walnut juice?

Eric Idle, of Monty Python fame, as Ko-Ko, sings in tune and with impeccable diction, though he offers little notion of a character. The casting of Richard Van Allan as Pooh-Bah and Felicity Palmer as Katisha is inspired. The rest of the cast is at the least satisfactory. Ahout 85 percent of the score is included on the record. I suppose I can dispense with the second act "madrigal," but I regret the omission of those wonderful comic trios "I am so proud" and "The criminal cried." Still there's a lot of Mikado for your money.

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