Arts Review: The Mikado

Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal, 5th – 14th May

‘The Mikado’ starts off with a man in traditional Japanese costume performing a saw-a-man-in-half magical trick that does not end with the man being alive and well despite the, in this case, Samurai-like swords, but with a cut-off head rolling on stage. The tone is set for Scottish Opera’s traditional but cheeky version of ‘The Mikado,’ a co-production with D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.

This surprising twist sets the tone, not only because beheading is the central theme of the piece, but also because this is not an opera like you would expect. Did you ever think David Cameron’s “close encounter with a pig” would feature in an opera? Neither did I, but the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko makes naughty (and very funny) remarks about many political leaders and public figures in his Little List Song. I was surprised by the amount of genuine laughs the larger-than-life characters, witty lyrics and anti-establishment silliness received.

No expenses seem to be spared when it comes to the staging, at points featuring an enormous version of Hokusai’s ‘The Big Wave’ or a suspended skeleton-arm. The designs are elaborate and, at times, surprising, but overall seem to be too much. At the time of writing, Gilbert set the opera in Japan to be able to freely criticise British politics and institutions by disguising them as Japanese. The conventional 19th-century Japonaise setting is turned into a staging within a staging by going “behind the scenes” to the dressing room, which emphasises the inappropriateness of cultural appropriation.

Even though the characters and their relationship to each other, as well as the issues the plot revolves around, are quite clear immediately, it takes a while to get involved. After a slow start, however, the performance bursts with energy. Especially the scenes with almost the entire cast on stage are impressive, the choreography simple but succeeding in creating strong images.

Nicholas Sharrat presents a charming interpretation of the role of Nanki-Poo, the silly, innocent wandering minstrel a.k.a. son of the Emperor, but my personal favourite was Rebecca de Pont Davies as Katisha. A Cruella de Vil-like character who modulates her voice in an excellent way, going all the way into the depths of the alto register.

‘The Mikado’ is very accessible because of its humour and contemporary references, but also showcases the wonders of live music in combination with excellent singing. A perfect introduction for those who have not been to the opera often.

[Aike Jansen]

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