It would be interesting to know if Rio Tinto knew exactly what they were signed up for with Opera Queensland’s latest production of The Mikado
. The dirt kings of the north are long-term sponsors of the company – and as such their name is sprayed all over South Bank’s Conservatorium Theatre tonight – but this new take on a Gilbert and Sullivan classic is far removed from the old-fashioned respectability most operas bring to the table. Framed by Simone Romaniuk’s crisp modern set and costume design, it’s a 19th century operetta very much aimed at a 21st century audience.
Not that you’d know it when you first arrive - there are old people everywhere. One silver-haired lady actually walks straight into me while I’m drinking my pre-show juice. While some colleagues seated in a different section of the theatre, later tell me about having to crane a view past some expansive, mothbally millinery.
The septuagenarians make sense, though. This being opening night, a large percentage of the audience are guests of Opera Queensland, Rio and the performers themselves. You suspect there might be more than a few proud parents and grandparents in the audience, which is great actually, because they contribute to a rousing atmosphere once the lights dim and the orchestra launches into the overture.
of course barely needs any introduction. Widely regarded as the greatest work to emerge out of the theatrical partnership between librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, the 1885 operetta’s Japanese setting allowed Gilbert to skewer British society from a distance; its tale of wandering second trombonist Nanki-Poo, his beloved Yum-Yum, and her betrothed Ko-Ko giddily rolling about in the red tape that marred political life at the time.
The satire remains relevant today. Whether it be the endless conflicts of interest created by haughty bureaucrat Poo-Bah’s ridiculous number of official positions, or some modernisation of Ko-Ko’s ‘As Some Day it May Happen’ (or ‘Little List’, as it’s casually known), with the inclusion of jabs at Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, champagne socialists and yuppies, The Mikado
still makes plenty of sense.
This of course means the visual updates are all the more palatable. Romaniuk’s costume and set design are sublime – the former ringing true with its hints of FRUiTS and Harajuku
, the latter classically Japanese in its elegant simplicity – and fit hand-in-glove with Donn Byrnes’ eye-popping approach to lighting. Together, Romaniuk and Byrne have styled a production that’s always involving but never distracting, and the way the performers themselves take charge of set changes is a nice reminder of The Mikado’s
popularity with amateur theatre troupes.
Speaking of the performers, there’s very little to find fault with. Dominic Walsh is all springy, elegant charm as wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo, although – like many before him, no doubt – he sometimes struggles to balance his projection with the need to enunciate Gilbert’s witty texts. Indeed, as is often the case with operetta, Walsh sometimes can’t match the baritones of Andrew Moran’s Pooh-Bah and Jason Barry-Smith’s Pish-Tush, as well as the late arrival of Richard Anderson in the titular role of the Mikado. Similarly, Kristy Swift is very good as Yum-Yum but ultimately outshone by the second act heavy artillery provided by Adele Johnston as court cougar Katisha. By some distance the audience favourite tonight though, is Eugene Gilfedder in the money role of Ko-Ko. Gilfedder is a better actor than he is singer, but this perhaps helps him nail every juicy line in a performance that seems half Ben Elton, half Will Self.
Everything about this take on The Mikado
tends to over deliver. Expert Gilbert and Sullivan director Stuart Maunder has sharpened the comedy to a refined point and Siobhan Ginty’s nimble choreography enlivens the stage, particularly when Pish-Tush and his gentlemen chorus are motoring about the place. You begin to realise that this update makes sense: from the modernised libretto to its grounding in Harajuku, an area in Tokyo that’s defined by street performance, there’s a clever symmetry wherever you look. Many opera buffs and traditionalists might baulk at such a production, but they’re missing out: this is opera updated with purpose.
The Mikado runs until Saturday 28 July.