Presented by Nashville Opera at TPAC’s Polk Theater
8 p.m. Jan. 26, 2 p.m. Jan 28, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 30, and 8 p.m. Feb. 3
For tickets, call 255-ARTS
During the last few years, Nashville Opera Association has earned a reputation for delivering the goods with sometimes risky programming. Those choices have ranged from Benjamin Britten’s intense and unsettling Turn of the Screw to Wagner’s gloomily mystical Flying Dutchman. Most noteworthy, maybe, is that each risky selection has demanded a different kind of strategy. And sometimes, at first glance, the riskiest selections do not seem risky at all.
For instance, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, which begins a four-performance run this weekend, might be seen simply as comic relief among this season’s three heavier productionsDon Giovanni a few weeks ago, and the upcoming Regina and Otello. Certainly The Mikado is funny, and it should have broader appeal than the season’s other offerings. But it is not simply either of these things.
I come back to the work after many years, and coincidentally after seeing in The New York Times Magazine a tribute to the late Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip. Schulz’ materials were austerely minimalisthalf-a-dozen children, no adults, a dog whose friends are birds, and drawings only a few steps beyond stick figures. Each of his little dramas required just four panelsexcept on Sundays, when he allowed himself eight. Yet his procedures were as elegant and ideogrammatic as Chinese calligraphy. And though the results delighted literate children, they spoke more powerfully to adults. So too The Mikado.
Sir W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) became wealthy indeed collaborating on what they called operettas. Each of them was ambitious to do enduring “serious” workand never did. Those frustrated ambitions, exacerbated by great differences in personal taste and temperament, finally unraveled their partnership. But they did wondrous things while it lasted.
They flourished late in the era named for the queen who reigned longer than any other British monarch (from 1837 to 1901), and whose name became synonymous with pretentious, self-righteous self-importance. G&S made a career of puncturing that pretentiousness. Their genius was in making the punctured enjoy laughing at themselves. There is nothing accusatory in their satire; they were not trying to bring about social change. They laughed at the way things were. And they were themselves members of the society they satirized.
In The Mikado, which premiered in 1885, G&S pretend to be looking not at England but at another punctilious society, Japana device that allows the upper-class English to observe themselves without ever acknowledging that’s what they’re doing. The dress code is rigidly formal, etiquette is scrupulously correct. The Mikado pretends to be a ruthless absolute ruler, and his subjects help him to sustain that pretense. The reality is quite otherwiseincurably superficial and venal, all show and no substance.
The engine driving the action is love. Nanki-Poo, the Mikado’s son, is in love with the lovely Yum-Yum. But he has been ordered to marry a grand and fearsome female named Katisha. So he runs away in disguise to claim Yum-Yum, about to be married off to her guardian Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. Through some clever improvisation, abetted especially by Pooh-Bah, catastrophe is averted, Nanki-Poo marries Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko marries Katisha, nobody has to die, and the Mikado declares that “Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory!”
On the simplest level, the plot is just an excuse to do the operato create a spectacle in which scenery, costume, song, dance, gesture, speech, and orchestral performance interact to beguile a roomful of witnesses. It’s the way those elements interact that matters.
The music, for instance, is not cutting-edge. It’s a melodious and ingenious cocktail of Haydn and Mozart and Renaissance madrigals and Henry Purcell, with a dash of Victorian love song. The libretto is not cutting-edge; Gilbert works within a well-established tradition of witty satirical rhyme. What is perhaps unique in the G&S collaboration is the perfect marriage of tunes and texts: Any sentimentality in Sullivan’s melodies is neutralized by Gilbert’s acidic lyrics. Two kinds of music are featured: lovely parodic love songs and laments, and rapid-fire, staccato-patter songs that have been called Victorian rap. These occur not only as solos but as ensemble pieces too. And though they seem simple, they demand great accuracy in execution: Tempos must be invariant, and consonants must crackle like precisely timed flashes of lightning.
Both these kinds of music are perfectly fitted to texts, so that words and music tap or waltz like Fred and Ginger. And though the texts speak of love and longing and suicide and beheadings and buryings alive, nobody ever suffers even a hangnail. In a G&S opera, life doesn’t just go on; it goes on delightfully. Any hint of bitter is there to underscore the sweet.
Artistic director John Hoomes hasonce againput together an extraordinary cast of singer/actors. As befits a fable about young love, several of the cast are winners of NOA’s Young Artist Competition, including Carolyne Eberhardt as the luscious Yum-Yum and Michael Wade Lee as her husband-to-be Nanki-Poo. In their roles, these actors look right, and sound right, and act right. But the pillars of the castthe actors playing Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, and Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Elseare both accomplished and experienced performers. Donald Hartman as Pooh-Bah brings a large and expressively resonant bass-baritone voice and finely honed acting skills to this archetypal windbag-for-bribing. And Michael Sokol as Ko-Ko has done a variety of roles in G&S productions in Europe and in the U.S. Both in speaking lines and in singing them, he performs with dramatic tact and taste that sometimes literally take the breath away.
Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah have a couple pivotal scenes to play as a duo, and Sokol and Hartman realize these duets with the expressive accuracy of Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax. Sokol also has a poignantly funny song-and-dance duet with Janara Kellerman as Katisha. Along with these imported talents, Nashville actor Barry Scott makes his NOA debut as the Mikado. And Robert Bernhardt, music director of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, who conducted last year’s Flying Dutchman, returns to direct the Nashville Symphony in this production.
Rehearsals foretell that NOA is about to deliver the goods again. The Mikado may be experienced simply as diverting, deadpan farce; there are no knowing winks and self-conscious meta-ironies here. Butlike Peanutsit is not simply that. There is a darker sensibility at work as well. In the Schulz comic strip world, Lucy always snatches the football away before Charlie Brown can kick it. In Gilbert and Sullivan’s Japan, Ko-Ko has to give up his beloved Yum-Yum and marry the formidable Katisha so that Yum-Yum can marry her beloved Nanki-Poo. These dark undertones may be easily filtered out; but for some, it’s the bitters in the Beefeater that make the drink distinct. In either case, with bitters or neat, this Mikado promises to be, for the entire family, a splendid entertainment.
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