The Opera Australia Mikado (Video, 1987)

The MikadoRobert Eddie
Nanki-PooPeter Cousens
Ko-KoGraeme Ewer
Pooh-BahGregory Yurisich
Pish-TushJohn Germain
Yum-YumAnne-Maree McDonald
Pitti-SingJennifer Bermingham
Peep-BoCaroline Clack
KatishaHeather Begg

Elizabethan Sydney Orchestra
Opera Australia Chorus
Conductor: Andrew Greene
Director: Christopher Renshaw

ABC Video 12621
ABC Video 12621

This is a fascinating production of The Mikado, full of wonderful visual effects, but also some oddities. I have long been skeptical of the ability of grand opera companies to present G&S convincingly, but this production challenges that view: it is as solid a performance as you'll see.

You expect great singing from a grand opera company, and mostly you get that here. Heather Begg has been singing the contralto parts for over thirty years, and she's still one of the best there is. Gregory Yurisich and John Germain cut striking figures (vocally and physically) and Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush.

Robert Eddie's voice has operatic heft, but his diction in The Mikado's song is a bit wooly. As Pitti-Sing, Jennifer Bermingham sings well, but she looks too old for the part.

Anne-Maree McDonald is a delightful Yum-Yum, fully living up to the character's name. Her rendition of "The Sun Whose Rays" is lovely, and she's a treat to look at. As Nanki-Poo, Peter Cousens seems to be imported from musical comedy. He is merely adequate, among a cast who are much better than him.

Graeme Ewer is a wonderful Ko-Ko in most respects — full of comic touches, although I have seen better. His best moments are when he just sits still and sings, delivering the best "Tit-willow" anywhere. However, he is a tenor (his other G&S roles for Opera Australia are Duchess of Plaza-Toro [yes!] and Duke of Dunstable), and he has some trouble at the lower end of the part's tessitura.

But, the real stars here are the director and the designer. Before the show begins, we see what appears to be a giant show curtain adorned with reproductions of Mikado posters, cigarette cards, and advertising ephemera. However, it has doors in it, and in the opening number, the men's chorus enter through them. They are painted in white face, and they carry briefcases. Shortly thereafter, the curtain rises, and we see the full stage, lavishly decorated in a Japanese motif. The beginning of Act II parallels this opening, with the women entering through the same doors.

At the beginning of Act II, Yum-Yum bathes inside of a giant Japanese ceramic urn. Urns pervade the show: Pish-Tush makes his first entrance out of an urn. The Madrigal is sung while the characters are sitting on urns.

For The Mikado's entrance, a partition at the back of the stage rises, and we see the emperor and Katisha on a giant red platform, seated on thrones. For his song, a panel in the platform opens, and a stair glides forward, so that The Mikado can descend. After the song, he returns to his throne.

Unfortunately, there is no subtlety here. The director is content to show these characters as cartoon cutouts, with scarcely any heart or soul behind them. Some of the visual effects make little sense, except that they are spectacular for their own sake. For example, red platform that holds The Mikado and Katisha in Act II makes a great first impression, but the ensuing scene suffers when Ko-Ko et al are forced to address characters that are behind and above them.

Our eyes are intrigued when Pooh-Bah enters through a giant armoire. But, why is he there, and when he exits through it, where is he going? The same objection can be raised about the giant urn that Pish-Tush uses. Nanki-Poo enters in Act I on a bicycle, but it seems out of place through the rest of the scene.

Overall, this is one of the more intriguing Mikados you'll see, but there is more to the opera than the director seems to have understood. Andrew Greene leads the Elizabethan Sydney Orchestra in an unremarkable traversal of the score.

The production, I subsequently learned, had originated in the U.K. with Sadlers Wells, and Opera North also toured it. Stephen Turnbull contributed this anecdote that, while not related to the production's Australian incarnation, is as relevant here as anywhere else:

Kate Flowers, at a SASS Festival in 1992, told a lovely story of when she was playing Yum-Yum for Opera North. (This was basically the New Sadlers Wells production with all the jars). In the Act II opening, Yum-Yum appeared to be bathing in one of these jars, and, with just her head and shoulders sticking out, would seem to be naked. The ladies of the ON chorus persuaded Kate to do the scene topless one night on the not unreasonable ground that nobody would be able to see into the jar. Unfortunately, they were in a very steep, high theatre (probably the Grand in Leeds) and the males in the "gods" got an unexpected treat — according to Kate she could tell that her state was immediately obvious by the reaction of that section of the audience.

Issue History
1987 ABC Video VHS PAL 12621
1988 Vision Video Ltd VHS PAL VVD 1049
1988? Polygram VHS PAL 0792713