Mikado – Scottish Opera – Review

Rating: ★★★☆☆

This review appeared first on Opera Britannia

There’s a lot to like about this new production of The Mikado but unfortunately there’s quite a lot about it to cause concern too. There seems little doubt that it will bring in the crowds throughout a relatively long tour which goes to Belfast, Newcastle, Bristol and Southampton as well as Scottish Opera’s usual venues. With any luck, it might bed in fairly soon and be ready for most of those who see it.

Let us focus on the positives first. This is a stunningly designed show. Designer Dick Bird has pulled off a show which instantly looks alive and vibrant. Quite where we were is something that I never managed to work out. That Japan might be one of the possibilities should not be surprising. However, the ladies of the chorus were wearing some rather splendid Victorian bloomers under their kimonos, whilst their gentlemen counterparts appeared to have escaped from a cross-dressing themed Busby Berkley musical that never got made. We sometimes seemed to be a the end of Victorian pier but it was a bit of a surprise when the Mikado himself arrived on a naval ship that looked like it was out to catch the Pirates of Penzance.

However, let us be postmodern about this. The costumes and the set were executed with considerable aplomb. The sheer vibrancy of the colours on stage seeming to cock a snook at anyone who fondly thinks of Jonathan Miller’s much more washed-out Mikado of lasting ENO success.

There was quite a lot of stage business going on at the beginning during the overture. Ko-Ko appeared ready to do a magic trick, cutting an apparent volunteer from the audience into pieces. The subsequently dismembered head, when the trick went wrong, then joining many others sitting on platters who introduced themselves as the Gentlemen of Japan. It was clever and as a bonus distracted considerably from a rather lumpy overture, taken (like a lot of the evening) at a rather turgid pace. However, once we’d got over the notion that the Gentlemen of Japan were all decapitated heads who had retained the ability to sing, they just disappeared along with the idea of Ko-Ko’s magic tricks. It was symptomatic of ideas being presented visually extremely well but which didn’t really feel as though they had been carried through to their logical conclusion.

There’s quite a lot to like about the singing. Nicholas Sherratt had a gentle take on Nanki-Poo – a lyrical performance which did him credit. Rebecca Bottone’s Yum-Yum matched him well. There was an effortlessness about their duets which was very pleasing. The three little maids from school were completed with Sioned Gewn Davies’s Pitti-Sing and Emma Kerr’s Peep-Bo. Ms Davies’s voice was perhaps just a little too strong to blend well with Ms Bottone but the three of them looked the part and had lots of energy.

Andrew Shore’s Pooh Bah was deliciously pompous. His voice was deliciously rich too. Ben McAteer, fresh from Scottish Opera’s stunning recent new commission The Devil Inside, demonstrated that he could hold his own in a very different genre. Here he was an absurdly camp comic Pish-Tush who was considerably more funny than most absurdly camp comic turns usually are. The Mikado himself, Stephen Richardson had a magisterial richness in his singing and when he tried to tell us that the punishment must fit the crime, he did so in a stately and very courtly manner.

Generally speaking it was a vocally strong cast. Only Rebecca de Pont Davies gave cause for concern. Though her Katisha was brilliantly alarming, she was struggling again and again to keep the lower notes of her register in tune and one had to rely on the surtitles far more often than should have been necessary.

By a long way, the figure on stage with the greatest experience of Gilbert and Sullivan was Richard Suart as Ko-Ko and that experience showed. He used plenty of rubato to play around with his lines which added interesting character to the singing. The Little List was magnificently rewritten and was laugh-out-loud funny. A particularly good joke about the Prime Minister’s pig-gate fiasco was made all the more funny for me as I seemed to be sitting next to the only person in the theatre who didn’t get it and didn’t find it amusing at all.

The use of a ventriloquist’s dummy in the shape of a crow during Tit Willow was utterly inspired.

The only thing that jarred about Suart’s performance was his spoken accent which seemed to be cockney with a side order of Australian strine. It was also not the only odd accent on the stage, Yum-Yum sounded terribly strangulated when she was speaking though beautifully fluid when singing. And I didn’t like Nanki-Poo’s “home counties with a slight speech impediment” accent all. Fortunately, neither did Nicholas Sherratt, as he dropped it more and more as the evening went on.

The odd accents and the strange lurches from one genre to another (Katisha arrived on The Great Wave off Kanagawa but ended up chasing Ko-Ko through some kind of horror movie) meant that one was never sure where one was. Indeed, I realised about half way through that I’d not heard such strange and inconsistent accents on an opera stage since the last time Scottish Opera put on a Savoy Opera – Pirates of Penzance with the same director Martin Lloyd-Evans two years ago. Perhaps they are his trademark but they added nothing constructive to the show.

Down in the pit, slapdash work was being made of Sullivan’s score. Conductor Derek Clark was very obviously struggling to keep the singers and the orchestra together. This was particularly so during “To Sit In Solemn Silence in A Dull Dark Dock” and the finale which was in grave danger of unravelling completely.

Overall, one was left with the impression of a show which had a lot of good ideas washing around, not all of which were followed through and which was simply not ready for performance. No doubt things will tighten up a bit on tour but for Glasgow audiences it felt very much like a rehearsal for the real thing.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Other Reviews

BachtrackRating: ★★★☆☆
Daily RecordRating: ★★★★☆
The ListRating: ★★★☆☆
The StageRating: ★★★★☆
ScotsmanRating: ★★★☆☆
TelegraphRating: ★★★☆☆
HeraldRating: ★★★★★


Ariodante – Scottish Opera – review

This review appeared first at Opera Britannia

Scottish Opera’s new production of Ariodante has a huge amount going for it. Performed by a solid cast, there’s a cracking trouser role, glittering sopranos and a pantomime baddie countertenor to boot. Only some dubious work in the pit and some slightly odd decisions from the director get in this way of this being a complete knockout. However, it is still a highly entertaining night out and would make a good first production for anyone wanting to give opera a go.


This is an opera completely driven by brilliant singing. Caitlin Hulcup completely owns the title role. She looked dashing as the young Ariodante (a soldier, in this production) and took the audience deftly through a rollercoaster of emotions. Her “Scherza infida“, which came shortly before the interval in this production, was pure, heart wrenching sadness. Sung from an awkward crouching position, the sheer knots of grief that betrayal can engender were laid out before us. It was pure, it was sad and it was lovely. Later on, Miss Hulcup gave an astonishingly virtuoso performance of  “Dopo notte” – precise, joyful and exquisitely sung. It was all the more remarkable, coming towards the end of quite a long evening of singing.

However, Miss Hulcup was not the only star in the firmament. The parts of Ginevra and Dalinda were sung by two very fine sopranos indeed. Sarah Tynan’s voice brought a rich elegance to Ginevra, whilst Jennifer France, a Scottish Opera Emerging Artist, gave a fantastic show-stealing performance playing the maid Dalinda.


The men were good too. Lurcanio was played by Ed Lyon whose acting was as precise and deft as his long vocal runs. Meanwhile, the villain of the piece Polinesso was played for laughs by Xavier Sabata, who somehow seemed to have acquired from somewhere Windsor Davies’s moustache. He was a crowd-pleasing villain – generous ironic boos being interspersed with his applause when all was done.

The King was sung by a rich sonorous Neal Davies, who made particularly good work of “Voli colla sua tromba”. Unfortunately, this wasn’t matched in the pit, where there seemed to be a sudden and unfortunate outbreak of Fluffy Horn Syndrome. This was not the only time in the evening when there were some disappointing sounds from below. String intonation was a bit of a worry throughout and it sounded rather as though the orchestra were a little on the unprepared side. Maybe things will warm up through the run, but this wasn’t a great first night sound. Conductor Nicholas Kraemer kept things nicely balanced – no-one was overwhelmed by the orchestra. However, it was the singing that shone musically rather than the orchestra.

But where were we and what was going on?

The lyrics tell us that we were in Scotland. The set told us that we were mostly in a large atrium in a land of snow and ice. And the director seemed to be telling us that we were somewhere where the puritans were in power, putting adulterers to death for breaking biblical injunctions.

A very striking non-singing opening scene was introduced during the overture – two unfortunate sinners were shown on the point of being hanged by their necks until they were dead. Indeed, they were each still trembling as they hang from the scaffold which we saw when the curtain went up. An Anglican bishop in modern dress seemed to be in charge of these proceedings, which were attended by an elegant crowd who seemed to have recently rediscovered something attractive about Edwardian clothing. This brief glimpse of the terrible fate of two individuals was then replaced with a curtain bearing the chilling words of Deuteronomy 22 about stoning adulterers to death.


Now, I like a bit of religion but I was struggling a bit to get my head around all this. There was a big concept at work that I’m not entirely sure was ever entirely coherent. The trouble is, Ariodante is not a particularly religious opera. It is about virtue – doing good and being seen to do good. It isn’t particularly about anything more spiritual than that and certainly isn’t about Christianity. And yet we had the words “Trust in the Lord” emblazoned across the stage throughout the whole proceedings.

It is perhaps simply a relief that the big concept didn’t particularly detract from the performance but it didn’t add that much either.

For the outdoor scenes we were transported to a snowy wilderness where all the men who had either been wearing modern suits, clerical dress of very uncertain vintage or Edwardian military uniforms suddenly appeared sporting Russian-looking hats. I almost expected a walrus, polar bear or penguin to appear, which might have given us some geographical certainty about where we were but none came.

Perhaps director Harry Fehr had simply given designer Yannis Thavoris the instruction to keep the audience wondering throughout the whole evening. Not that things were ever dull though. Although some of the changes of scene were a little clumsy with an ever falling dark curtain drop in danger of cutting off the action, the stage-work was interesting. The first scenes were set amongst fruit bushes which were doing rather well whilst love was in the air but as soon as betrayals and deception entered the scene, they died and rotted almost instantly.

At various points, a couple of dancers appeared and danced their way through dream sequences. This was pretty but didn’t add that much to the storytelling and could easily have been cut without the evening losing terribly much.

However, none of this should detract from what was a very enjoyable evening indeed. The first act particularly flew by and there was simply so much good singing that it seems almost churlish to be puzzled by whatever was going on in the director’s head.

Notwithstanding some reservations, this remained enjoyable, entertaining and life-enhancing opera.

Rating: ★★★★☆