Thursday 3 March 2011
A masterclass in titwillow'ry
Richard Suart (pictured above with Anne-Marie Owens in the first of Chris Christodoulou's images for English National Opera reproduced here) slipped in to the Jonathan Miller Mikado under the presumably small feet of Bill Oddie back in 1988, two years after its first airing. Which of course makes this classic of the operatic world a veteran production at 25 - I've written about this at length in the programme and on The Arts Desk - and though there were one or two things which could still have been brought into tighter focus when I saw the revival last night, Suart's Lord High Executioner is certainly not among them; custom has not staled his infinite comic variety.
Credit for a couple of the gags - Ko-Ko licking the Mikado's shoes, pure Monty Python, and, having been pressed to Katisha's ample bosom, spitting out a couple of her pearls - seems to have originated with the first Lord of the Chopper, Eric Idle. But I'm guessing Suart has built on the part in many ways since those two December '88 performances. Of course his ever-adapted little list is now a sacred and still hilarious rite (the audience applauded Berlusconi's 'bunga bunga' and a last-minute reference to the equally unfunny pronouncements of John Galliano last night). I can only say yet again that Suart's book on the subject in conjunction with A S H Smyth, They'd none of 'em be missed, is a delight from cover to cover and beautifully produced. But I did reel in admiration not just at the Lewis Carroll absudity of Gilbert's lyrics for the ballad of tit-willow - imagine a bird suffering from cold perspiration and a rather tough worm in his little inside - but also the new creativity brought to it last night.
It's treated as a cautious exercise in winning over the Margaret Dumontish Katisha (Owens, it has to be admitted, had some difficulty in manoeuvring her ample mezzo around the text and being heard, though my friend Clare's young son, who loved Trovatore at Covent Garden, observed that she was surely the only singer on the stage capable of 'doing dark and heavier opera'. Well, Donald Maxwell, the Pooh-Bah, used to sing Wozzeck, but that was some time ago). In a stroke of genius, when the 'echo arose from the suicide's grave', it's Owens who sings the 'tit willow'. She's hooked at last, and Suart's hitherto abject Ko-Ko waxes Pythonsequely confident.
It was such fun being part of the 45 minute whistlestop Join the Conversation Live event expertly guided as ever by Christopher Cook up in the Coli's balcony bar (yes, we've moved from the wacky set-up in the noisy Apple Store - scroll down to read about the last event I participated in there. CC actually asked me then about Parsifal, and I said that though I know it well, I'd actually rather talk about The Mikado). I was there loftily to draw comparisons between Sullivan and Puccini: 'The sun whose rays' is as much of a mostly-pentatonic master-aria as Liu's 'Signore, ascolta'). And you could have knocked me down with a horse-feather when my fellow panellist, Michael Simkins, told me he'd played Pish-Tush in Mike Leigh's masterpiece of let's-put-on-a-show thespian shenanigans Topsy-Turvy (time to get it on DVD and watch it even more carefully).
So Mike's achievement quite casts my junior efforts as Sir Joseph Porter and my endlessly recycled Nightmare-Song party trick in the shade. Even so I was quite amused, touched even, listening back to my patter of 1973 with the army of recorders and cellos (the only 'serious' instrument taught at Banstead Junior School) as accompaniment.
We also had a tasty appetiser from the Pish-Tush of the evening, William Robert Allenby, covering Ko-Ko and delivering for us the little list as originally set by Sullivan. He was allowed to make much of his relatively small role in the show itself, and I thought it was jolly nice of him after the talk to address my friend's two children, who of course had a whale of a time, especially with the special-guest wigmakers (Allenby explained that he was the only person on stage with his own hair, cut into Bertie Woosterish style by a lady of the wardrobe). Everything still looks dazzlingly beautiful in its crazy way, and it's a long time since I've heard an audience applaud a stage tableau, as they did when the curtain went up on the braiding of the raven hair at the start of Act 2.
By the way, the dressing-room board of pictures the staff brought with them to the talk included a droll composite picture of Felicity Palmer playing Margaret Dumont to Groucho Marx. Yesterday I took delivery of the Bell Telephone Hour potted Mikado of 1960 starring the great Groucho - Ko-Ko to glorious former Isolde Helen Traubel's Katisha (God, that woman was a marvel, from her 1930s Wagner Wesendonck Lieder with Stokowski through to a genuinely funny duet with Jimmy Durante in the 1950s as well as this). Their scene together is one highlight; Stanley Holloway's drolly low-key Pooh-Bah is another. The abridgement can be frustrating, but it's a curiosity well worth having.
Anyway, what a timeless work of genius The Mikado still is: I don't think there's a single line of dialogue which doesn't really fit today, even if a few need footnoting. Remember I grew up knowing most of this by heart, and it really was as fabulous a verbal education as going on to learn Latin or Greek. Not every singer is a natural at the spoken word in this revival, though all sing very well indeed: Donald Maxwell's Scots dignitary Pooh-Bah doesn't quite get the laughs in the right places, and though Alfie Boe moves well, he slightly gabbles his lines. But he makes a spiffing, gormless foil for Sophie Bevan's hard-as-nails Yum-Yum - really excellent in the dialogue, consummate as she has to be in her little ray of sun- and moon-shine - and they dance well, too.
You'd have thought Richard Angas's Mikado was a hundred now, but he too puts across the text with charm, and I love the slightly furtive delivery of 'My object all sublime'.
Conductor Peter Robinson handles the lovely woodwind solos well but could move it all along a bit more zingingly, a la Mackerras. Even so, the dancing is huuuge fun and the gags still work. This is a show ENO simply won't be able to replace, and although it seems to me that Miller quickly fell into wish-I-was-back-in-the-world-of-medicine diffidence, his Mikado and Rigoletto remain testaments to a once-sharp sense of luxuriant imaginative detail.
I put up this documentary on the making of the original show at the foot of the Arts Desk incarnation of the programme article, but there's certainly no harm in having it to hand here. Dig those 80s fashions...