State Opera South Australia (SOSA) has turned Japanese this November as it closes out Artistic Director Stuart Maunder’s debut season with 'The Mikado' and 'Madama Butterfly'.
With a cast of SOSA favourites, emerging locals and international debutants headed by the comedically magnificent Byron Coll, Maunder’s 'The Mikado' gives us G&S how it ought to be, while simultaneously delivering the satirical operetta in new and refreshing ways.
In the 134 years since its premiere, the popularity of Gilbert & Sullivan’s 'The Mikado' has scarcely wavered. While it has been musically re-purposed at times, there are swing versions, jazz versions, '60s pop gangster versions – the insightfulness of Gilbert’s cultural and sociological observations and the tunefulness of Sullivan’s compositions have ensured that amateur and professional productions of their work persistently scatter the globe, playing in private school boarding house theatres and outback community halls, and often on the main stages of the world’s biggest opera houses.
In South Australia, though, the cherished refrains of G&S haven’t rung out in the Festival Theatre much lately, and Stuart Maunder has thankfully redressed that swiftly since leaving the New Zealand Opera and arriving in Adelaide. His 2019 'Mikado' draws heavily upon the acclaimed 2017 New Zealand Opera production, which also starred Byron Coll as the impish Ko-Ko and the delicious Amelia Berry as Yum-Yum. Importing the Kiwi duo was a masterstroke; can we claim them as honorary Australians, like Crowded House and Russell Crowe?
Dressed in a style that was a little bit Harajuku girl, a little bit Britney Spears, Amelia’s vocal line radiated outwards luxuriously on ‘The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze’. Her romance with the wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo, played by another SOSA debutant Dominic J Walsh who looked like an emo K-Pop star but who sang with a ringing rich tenor, was pitch perfect. The two other little maids, Peep-Bo (Charlotte Kelso) and Pitti-Sing (Bethany Hill) extracted every laugh from their dialogue, with special mention for Charlotte’s comedic dance moves.
Image © Soda Street Productions
In a cast of stars, though, which included masterful operatic vocal performances from the commanding bass Pelham Andrews as The Mikado and iconic mezzo soprano Elizabeth Campbell as the Cruella De Vil-esque Katisha, it was the film and TV character actor Byron Coll who managed to shine brightest amidst a crowded galaxy of stars. With his thick Scottish accent, Byron excoriated local, national and international politicians, along with that person, you know that person, who always speaks so loudly on their phone, through his updated hit list in 'As Some Day It May Happen'. In his voluminous orange silk bloomers, the reluctant executioner killed it on opening night by delivering a comedic tour de force.
Like Byron, Pelham’s Mikado provided a contemporary list of grievances in ‘A More Humane Mikado’ citing climate change deniers and social media influencers. While some aspects of the tale required updating for contemporary audiences, sadly the themes such as the corrupting nature of absolute power and the dangers of departing from the rule of law are as timely now as they were in the 1880s.
While the libretto may depart from the original at times, under the baton of conductor Simon Kenway, the cast and chorus are strictly and gloriously regimented, while choreographer Siobhan Ginty's work with the small State Opera Chorus of nine men and six women is very effective.
If you don’t have tickets for 'The Mikado', you should put it on your list.
'The Mikado' plays Adelaide Festival Centre's Festival Theatre until 23 November.