Critic’s Notebook: The timeless allure of ‘The Mikado’

One hundred years after the 1885 premiere of “The Mikado” in London, the most popular Gilbert and Sullivan operetta still readily resonated with modern audiences. Peter Sellars set it in modern-day Japan for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1983. Jonathan Miller made a flapper “Mikado” three years later that was seen at Los Angeles Opera and elsewhere.

The G&S operettas are now less frequently produced, but such stalwarts as Opera a la Carte in L.A. or the Lamplighters in the Bay Area carry on still. The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players bring their “Mikado” to the Cerritos Center on Friday and Saturday. Lyric Opera mounted a new “Mikado” last year and English National Opera continues to keep Miller’s “Mikado” alive.

And now the Criterion Collection has given “The Mikado” a substantial boost thanks to its new DVD releases of Mike Leigh’s 1999 biopic “Topsy-Turvy,” based around the making of “The Mikado,” and a 1939 Hollywood-ized “Mikado” directed by Victor Schertzinger.

What is particularly fascinating about these releases, which include illuminating commentaries by Leigh, is just how much of our own time we always manage to bring to Gilbert and Sullivan. Leigh is meticulous in his recreation of the Victorian era. Allen Corduner, who plays Sir Arthur Sullivan, is a credible pianist, and, indeed, all the actors do their own singing and playing.


Leigh took tremendous pains to recreate the original staging of the shows. And it is remarkable to see just how much had changed from those funky first stagings to the Technicolor fantasy a half-century later. Leigh brilliantly explores the psychological motivations of Gilbert and Sullivan, just as he brilliantly documents the quality of theater life in the late 19th century.

But all that makes his film feel absolutely contemporary. Its concerns about how art is made are our concerns. Meanwhile, the makeup, acting style, everything about Schertzinger’s “Mikado” screams late-'30s musical and movie style.

The central conflict in “Topsy-Turvy” is Sullivan’s drive to move beyond the artificial topsy-turvy-dom of his shows with Gilbert and live up to his reputation as Britain’s greatest composer. He is driven to write a grand opera, and he eventually did with “Ivanhoe.” By chance, there is a new recording of that on CD, quite well performed by a fine cast and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by David Lloyd-Jones.

Musically, “Ivanhoe” sounds a bit like a British “Lohengrin,” but its stodgy Victorianisms seem a million miles away from the cosmopolitan figure in Leigh’s film. The opera is a forgotten relic for a reason.

“The Mikado,” however, remains packed with pleasures and both new DVDs marvelously unpack them.