La Scena Musicale

Monday, 29 December 2014

Toronto Operetta Theatre's Mikado a Rousing Holiday Romp

Toronto Operetta Theatre's Mikado a lively Holiday Romp

Joseph So

Gilbert and Sullivan:  The Mikado
Nanki-Poo - Adrian Kramer
Yum-Yum - Lucia Cesaroni
Pooh-Bah - David Ludwig
Ko-Ko - Joseph Angelo
Pish-Tush - Gregory Finney
Katisha - Mia Lennox
Mikado - Giles Tomkins
Pitti-Sing - Brittany King
Peep-Bo - Daria Bukhman

Derek Bate, conductor
Guillermo Silva-Marin, stage director
Jane Mallett Theatre, 8 pm, December 27, 2014.

Giles Tomkins as The Mikado (Photo courtesy of Toronto Operetta Theatre)

To celebrate its 30th anniversary season, Toronto Operetta Theatre is presenting for a run of six performances a perennial crowd favourite, Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. Last performed by TOT in 2008, this G&S warhorse has pride of place in the hearts of many operetta fans. It's often performed by troupes large or small, amateur or professional. The last time I saw this was some years ago in a student production, so it's nice to see a professional presentation by the TOT. The intimate Jane Mallett Theatre was very full on opening night, and the audience was very appreciative. Judging by the enthusiastic reception at the end, everybody had fun. Now that Christmas is over, the music scene is slowly coming back  to life, and this Mikado is one of the very first things on the calendar and well worth seeing. It runs until January 4, including a gala New Year's Eve performance. For details, go to http://www.torontooperetta.com/

The team of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, affectionately known as G&S to their devotees, created many works that have remained staples of the operetta repertoire to this day. Easy, accessible melodies sung in English, fun-filled if improbable scenarios in colourful settings, and a well honed sense of wit are all strengths of G&S. In the case of The Mikado, its madcap silliness and what passes for the exotic Orient (as seen through the lens of late Victorian English society) do seem awfully quaint by 21st century standards. This piece really has little to do with things Japanese and everything to do with a spoof on English society at the time; certainly there's nothing remotely Japanese about the music!  But that doesn't stop the naysayers out there, particularly in the media and in academia, from taking the position that this piece is so hopelessly dated if not downright racist, that it should be permanently shelved. It would be inappropriate to launch into a discussion on the merits of The Mikado in 21st century. Suffice to say that a true understanding and appreciation of a period piece is best seen in proper historical and social contexts.  Composers and librettists are understandably products of their own culture, and their creations reflect the worldview of the larger society of their time. It serves little purpose to take too seriously the trappings of 19th century Eurocentrism and try to gauge it with 21st century sensibilities. A de facto banning of a work would only be untenable and ultimately self-defeating. Wouldn't we also have to shelve Madama Butterfly, Turandot, L'oracolo, or even Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice simply because we don't agree with how the "ethnographic other" is portrayed?  The past can teach us a great deal about the present and help us anticipate the future. There's really no problem with a piece as long as it is staged sensitively, as in the TOT's The Mikado.  


Adrian Kramer (Nanki-Poo) and Lucia Cesaroni (Yum- Yum)

Given the very small stage of Jane Mallett Theatre and the lack of an orchestra pit, staging is by necessity simple - four poles with clusters of umbrellas, a two-step raised platform upstage with a lovely bonsai prominently displayed, plus a few props here and there. The rented costumes from Malabar look beautiful. No projections and simple lighting cues. In any case, this show really isn't so much about sets and costumes as about the quality of the singing and the acting. I am happy to say the ensemble cast was fully up to the task on opening night (Dec. 27).  Top vocal honours went to baritone-turned-tenor Adrian Kramer. A former member of the COC Ensemble Studio, Kramer was noted for his beautiful, compact-sized lyric baritone and vivid stage presence - I recall a very fine Papageno in the Ensemble performance of Magic Flute during his time there. Now a tenor, his sound is rich, ringing, and robust, this last no doubt a remnant of his baritonal past. The upper register really isn't tested in Nanki Poo's music, other than a single high note in the Act 1 duet which he handled well. I look forward to hearing Kramer in a more vocally challenging role. In any case he sang beautifully and his engaging stage persona shone through. His love interest, Yum-Yum, was soprano Lucia Cesaroni, who incidentally is also Kramer's real life partner. She has a pleasant lyric soprano with an unusually dark timbre that's perhaps not ideal for the essentially soubrette role of Yum-Yum, but Cesaroni sang very well and her pert stage presence was a pleasure. Their Act 1 duet, "Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted" was a highlight.

(l. to r.) Domenico Sanfilippo (Pish-Tush), Joseph Angelo (Ko-Ko), David Ludwig (Pooh-Bah)

The rest of the cast was equally strong, with great acting and some good singing. David Ludwig was really impressive as Pooh-Bah, dominating the stage. Together with Gregory Finney (Pish-Tush) and Joseph Angelo (Ko-Ko), the three of them made a great comedic trio.  There were local references in the updated dialogues, done with taste and restraint. Mia Lennox was a very fine Katisha, usually assigned to a low mezzo or contralto. Lennox acted and sang well, without excessive histrionics and she refrained from truck driver chest tones one sometimes encounters in this role.  In the short title role of the Mikado, bass-baritone Giles Tomkins gave an impressive performance and acted up a storm - his Mikado is good natured and without undue exaggeration.  Despite the occasional plodding tempi, the chamber orchestra of 12 musicians under the direction of COC conductor Derek Bate did better than one would have thought possible given its diminutive size. Guillermo Silva Marin, the artistic director of TOT, had just the right balance of slapstick and wit, without vulgarity. All in all, a fun-filled evening in the theatre and a highly welcomed Holiday tonic. 

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