Here’s a howdy-do. The cover of the program magazine at the Wiltern Theatre Thursday night looked strangely portentous. In knowing caricature, it showed a very dour W.S. Gilbert, arm in arm with a very quizzical Arthur Sullivan.
As it turned out, the genial gentlemen had good reason to be upset. The Music Center Opera--in conjunction with the English National Opera and the Houston Grand Opera--was having its way, as it were, with their “Mikado.”
We know. We know. The “Mikado” isn’t sacrosanct. It shouldn’t be confused with the “Messiah” or “Parsifal.” Ever since the golden days of good Queen Victoria, lots of show-biz folk have done lots of strange, lucrative things to this sweet musical satire, always with reasonable impunity.
But here’s the pretty mess, and a most ingenious paradox, too. A bona fide opera company now has done its utmost to play up but distort the drama and while playing down and distorting the music. It has done this, moreover, in the name of clever modernism with a veddy British accent.
Here’s the state of things. Jonathan Miller has decided that the choral gentlemen of Japan who introduce themselves at the rise of the curtain are liars. They aren’t Japanese at all. They really are visiting snobs and quaint English townspeople gathered, sometime during the late 1920s, at a seedy but eminently picturesque resort hotel.
The only suggestion of Orientalia takes the form of a blown-up woodcut depicting an unreasonable facsimile of Mt. Fuji. It can be glimpsed through the rear windows of Stefanos Lazaridis’ adorable, flexible set.
The stylized landscape happens to offer the stage its only splash of color. Everything else--like the Ascot of “My Fair Lady"--is black or white or a variation thereof.
Miller and friends play the fragile comedy as if it were an ancient and jittery drawing-room farce. Everything here is a source of fun. Nobody’s safe, for they care for none.
Ko-Ko becomes a faceless star-turn for the voiceless house comedian. Nanki-Poo, the erstwhile poker-faced hero, is now a fatuous and feckless collegiate fellow on a fling. Katisha represents the classic, romantically repressed, battle-ax dowager we know from the wonderful old Marx Brothers films.
And so it goes, as the hours creep on apace. The Mikado, ferociously cheerful and proudly obese, recalls a black-bearded Sydney Greenstreet. Chronically coy Yum-Yum and the other little girls from school are flaky flappers.
And flapping around everyone are a chorus of toe-tapping, terminally grinning, sometimes grinding, gotta-dance-gotta-dance idiots masquerading as the hotel staff. The maids and bellhops go crazy with Anthony van Laast’s 42nd St. diversions whenever the director threatens to get uninspired. That is all too often.
We must not pooh-pooh whatever’s fresh and new. There are amusing moments here, to be sure. The costume designs of Sue Blane are witty. The action is swift. The chorus is zesty. The mood projection is giddy. The lighting scheme--from bright to brighter--is deft. One can speak of focus and style.
But what does all this have to do with the “Mikado” we know, love and have missed? Very little. Miller and friends seem to want merely to lie upon the
daisies and discourse in novel phrases. . . .
One could forgive a lot if the music making were wonderful, or at least if it were idiomatic. But the evening begins with Robert Duerr conducting the lively overture as if it were a dirge (hey, but he’s doleful). Before the evening ends, he manages to explore a vast variety of inappropriate tempos and accents.
Then there is the ugly matter of amplification. The Music Center authorities have decided to turn on the microphones in this 2,000-seat house. In the process, they have falsified the voices and destroyed the balances, presumably for the sake of phony clarity.
The three bassos in the attractive, nimble, hard-working cast manage to serve composer and librettist well, despite the trying context.
Donald Adams, the most irresistibly formidable Mikado of our time, moves over to the succulent snobbery of Pooh-Bah, and does so with fine dramatic point and vocal generosity. Although Kenneth Cox, the new Mikado, might have taken a few fiendish-laugh lessons from his illustrious predecessor, he bumbles splendidly and booms nicely. Michael Gallup, disguised as a tweedy country parson, makes one regret the fleeting nature of Pish-Tush’s involvement.
Otherwise, there are problems.
Making his debut as Ko-Ko, Dudley Moore is, at best, a seven. He flirts shamelessly with the audience. He speaks his lines with relish, when he can remember them, and with a mercurial variety of inflections. He exudes a certain world-weary charm, but he doesn’t do much with or for the music.
He sings the slow passages in a crisp and creaky Sprechstimme . He doesn’t sing any fast passages. The celebrated catalogue aria--outfitted here with a topical text by Faye Greenberg--used to be a tongue-twisting patter song. Moore makes it a fitful adagio.
Michael Smith introduces an amiable wand’ring minstrel burdened with a comprimario tenor. As such, he provides an apt foil for Dale Wendell’s wispy, arch-ingenue Yum-Yum. Marvellee Cariaga lurches and sputters and melts with formidable authority as Katisha, but even electronic boosting cannot transform her into a gallon-jug contralto. Stephanie Vlahos (Pitti-Sing) and Suzanna Guzman (Peep-Bo) come close to blending into the white-on-white scenery.
Ah, to be back in Titipu. . . .