Monday, 25 February 2008

ENO 'Mikado' doesn't quite conquer anti-G&S prejudice

When H. and I first met we found that one of the things we had in common was a deep antipathy to Gilbert and Sullivan. For me, their work conjured up too many memories of stodgy Methodist amateur dramatics, while H. declared it was the kind of music liked by scientists (such were the snobberies of twentysomething arts graduates).

Strange then to find ourselves at the Coliseum on Saturday for the English National Opera's revival of Jonathan Miller's Mikado. The production was hugely enjoyable. I loved the Twenties-style black and white design which, together with the programme notes, brought out affinities with Astaire-Rogers and Marx Brothers movies. Ko-Ko declaring his 'love' for the battleaxe Katisha could almost have been Groucho fawning over Margaret Dumont, while the same character's comically delayed first entrance was a dead ringer for the opening scene of Animal Crackers. There were some fantastic individual performances too, most notably Richard Suart as a hugely funny Ko-Ko, stepping into the part created for the original Miller production by Eric Idle (his 'little list', regularly updated with audience contributions via the ENO website, included topical digs at Derek Conway and Mohammed al-Fayed). And I thought Sarah Tynan was delightful as Yum-Yum: a true operatic star in the making.

In recent years it has become modish to declare a (possibly ironic, postmodern-ish) liking for 'G&S'. None other than the great Aaron Sorkin has revealed his affection for their work by featuring songs in both The West Wing and Studio 60, and I notice that Jo Brand is starring in a new production of The Pirates of Penzance. But for all its qualities, the ENO Mikado didn't quite make Gilbert and Sullivan fans of us. Beneath the witty songs and the sharp satire, their plot and characters remain doggedly one-dimensional and incapable of engaging the deeper sympathies of an audience. Much as I enjoyed our outing to the Coliseum, it didn't make me want to rush out and buy the soundtrack. Instead, I hurried home and put on a CD of The Marriage of Figaro: now there's proper operatic comedy for you. Thirty years on, I'm still a snobby arts graduate at heart.

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