Tag Archives: opera

Operetta Review: The Mikado (Charing Cross Theatre, London)

If you're wondering who they are... The cast of The Mikado. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

If you’re wondering who they are… The cast of The Mikado. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Rating: ***

In a Nutshell

An exquisite vision and lavish production from Thom Southerland, but fails to capture the “oomph” that is key to a great Gilbert & Sullivan (G&S) show.

Overview

W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s renowned opera set in fictional Titpu, Japan, is given a 1920’s British make-over. 2nd trombonist, Nanki-Poo, returns to Titipu when learning that Ko-Ko, the ward and fiancé of his beloved Yum-Yum, is set to be executed. But we he arrives, he finds that small town corruption and impossible politics have seen Ko-Ko promoted to Lord High Executioner. As Nanki-Poo tries to weave a way to regain his love whilst saving the neck of his chief adversary, the solution causes more problems that it solves. After all, Nanki-Poo is not quite the wandering minstrel he purports to be.

Rebecca Caine (left) as Kitisha and Steve Watts (right) as Pooh-Bah. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Rebecca Caine (left) as Kitisha and Steve Watts (right) as Pooh-Bah. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Music & Libretto

Gilbert and Sullivan create a wonderful farce that’s scathingly satirical and blissfully funny. Like with any of their works, they unmercifully send up the establishment and anyone caught in its wake. Here, romancing exotic Victorian ideas of the Far East, the text is also full of very tongue in cheek Japan-isms, especially such as the names of the characters. But they still lambastes government shenanigans and the idiocy of the gentry in doing so. A mad-cap farce of love and corruption, The Mikado has endured to make it one of the best known works from their anthology due to its scintillating wry libretto and memorable music.

As well as great comic numbers, what is perhaps most endearing about this particular operetta are several beautiful arias that are pricked with pathos, providing sublime diversion from the silliness. Particularly, “The Sun, Whose Rays Are All Ablaze” is just as much as a pull for the opera as it’s comedy. This results in a wonderful mix of pathos and humour that surprisingly compliment each other incredibly well and provides for a show with as much variety as laughs.

Unique to this and every production is the carrying on of the tradition where Ko-Ko’s “list” gets updated for each run to include modern references, sending up contemporary villains and celebrity nuisances. Here, the company does an excellent job of doing this, possibly providing bigger laughs than Gilbert & Sullivan’s text itself. However, the production also goes the extra mile to also give the same treatment to “A More Humane Mikado Never Did Exist in Japan”, which is just as bellowingly cheeky and hilarious.

Getting carried away! Matthew Crowe (centre) as Nanki-Poo. Photograph: Courtesy of Steve Rylander.

Getting carried away! Matthew Crowe (centre) as Nanki-Poo. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Direction & Production

Award winning director Thom Southerland has brought all the high quality hallmarks of his career to this production. The concept, setting the Mikado in a 1920s British Japanese fabric factory/shop, looks wonderful and provides a feast of visual fun. The blend of geisha glamour and Charleston glitz (with a dash of Weimar cabaret) gives Southerland plenty of ammunition to create a visual spectacular. Particularly, McKneely’s immense choreography really embraces Southerland’s vision, and ends up driving both the energy and the humour that runs through it. Then there are little visual quips too, such as the cast eating cucumber sandwiches using chopsticks which is just as delightful as the bigger more noticeable gags. Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are also sumptuous and are impressively detailed, brimming with colour and intricacies embracing this culture-crossover of east meets west. Everything about the production is lavish and well thought out. It’s as glorious an off-West End production as they come.

However, Southerland’s decision to turn to directing G&S, attempting to bring operetta to a theatre audience, is perhaps one of worthy but misplaced ambition. Despite an enthusiastic cast and gorgeous production, it’s a show that doesn’t quite get the essence of operetta, meaning that it falls flat and drags more than it should. The problem is that Southerland seems to be trying to direct The Mikado as if it were a theatrical comedy. Therefore, whilst it has the kitsch, it doesn’t have the camp energy that is essential to bring this to life in the way that it needs to.

A wandering minstrel, he. Matthew Crowe as Nanki-Poo. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

A wandering minstrel, he. Matthew Crowe as Nanki-Poo. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Producing and directing G&S is almost an academic affair. Notably, there are several highly acclaimed companies that specialise in performing there, such as the Charles Court Opera Company and D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. What they understand is that G&S operettas are pretty much the panto of opera: literally. Gilbert spent a lot of his early career writing pantomimes, and a lot of that is arguably incredibly prevalent in his work with Sullivan, and forms the basis of the style of the their operettas. Therefore, an unshakable and unabashed energy must run through it at all times. Characters needs to be larger than life rather than something more natural, and the pace must be unrelenting and over the top where it needs to be. This is something that Southerland hasn’t quite been able to capture here, although he starts getting close to this ideal in Act II.

Furthermore, it is beyond me why anyone would put on an operetta and have less than half the cast as trained classical singers. As talented a professional West End cast as this boasts, there is a power in a chorus and leading members that only classical training provides and is absolutely required even in operetta. This adds to the flagging energy at times as it means the show misses the aural “oomph” as much as the stylistic one. The bits that work best are when these involve the members of the cast who are classically trained, namely Rebecca Caine as Katisha, Mark Heenehan as The Mikado, and Leigh Coggins as Yum-Yum. Whilst the others match their comic performance skills, none ever quite capture the power and richness of their voices and the correct tonal and timbre treatment of the songs. For example, leading man Matthew Crowe as Nanki-Poo, is a well versed and celebrated musical theatre actor. But he’s not a classical tenor, meaning that in many of his songs he’s constantly resorting to using falsetto, meaning volume and power is instantly lost. Therefore, despite his reputation and skill, he becomes the weakest member of the cast because of this. It’s not at all his fault and is merely an error in casting.

Other missteps include things such as insisting on acrobatic movements during patter songs. A lot of the glorious libretto is lost in numbers such as “There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast” because it’s just plain difficult for a cast to annunciate these already quick-tongued songs without being expected to roll about on the floor!

In short, this is a striking production, but there’s a reason why specific G&S companies exist and why operetta is classed in an entirely separate genre to both opera and musicals. It’s something Southerland strives towards, but doesn’t at all achieve.

Such a beautiful left elbow. Rebecca Caine as Katisha. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Such a beautiful left elbow. Rebecca Caine as Katisha. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Cast

Caine absolutely steals the show as Katisha. There’s a power and playfulness in everything she does to make her an expert villain, making Cruella DeVille look like Marry Poppins by comparison. Yet, she brings a tenderness and unexpected humanity for her more reflective arias, especially “Alone, And Yet Alive” that is as unexpectedly striking.

Other mentions must go to Hugh Osborne and Steve Watts as Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah respectively. These two roles are pretty much the only two roles you can get away with not casting classically trained singers in, and they’ve been cast wonderfully. Osborne’s timid, ambitious, and fretful Ko-Ko and is complemented by Watt’s marvellous pompous and “grossly insulted” crocked aristocrat. They’re a formidable double-act that reel in the laughs and are a joy to watch.

Verdict

A very worthy and slick attempt at bringing G&S to new theatre audiences. But as slick as and meticulously produced as it is, it’s missed the mark by trying to treat operetta as a musical theatre rather than try to achieve the specialist approach that these famed pieces require. None the less, it’s still enjoyable and entertaining in spite of this, and is a fun and lavish evening out.

[youtube http://youtu.be/EX6TOmMMOkI]

The Mikado runs at the Charing Cross Theatre, London, WC2N 6NL.,until 3 January 2015. Tickets are £22.50 (concessions available). To book, visit www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk.

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Face to Face Review: The Fall Of The House of Usher (Lost Theatre, London)

Jamie-West-Usher_i8a8prwpRating: ****

In a Nutshell

An ambitious reduction performed with intoxicating and engrossing theatricality.

NOTE: This piece is a work in progress.

Overview

As part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre’s evening of experimentation, musician Jamie West reduces the prog rock opera by Van De Graaff Generator front-man, Peter Hammill, with libretto by Chris Judge Smith, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, for solo performer.

The narrator is summoned to the house of Roderick Usher. Upon the apparent death of Roderick’s sister, Madeline, he convinces the narrator that she should be buried in the vaults below the house. But all is not what it seems and, days later, things start to go bump in the night in the tombs below.

Music & Libretto

Hammill’s opera is wonderfully accessible in the fact that his prog rock riffs and melodies are quick to hook. Judge Smith’s libretto also blends Poe’s Gothic prose with more natural language meaning that the high-poetry doesn’t stifle the flow of the music or seeming awkwardly inserted, but still gives the glory of Poe’s wordsmithing room to pierce through.

West has made some adjustments to the music, in trying to make it possible to perform it as a solo musician on only a single given instrument at any time. But West also admits changing some of the harmonies to make them more accessible and chime more with him personally as a performer. Whilst it might seem sacrilege to make changes to the actual operatic score beyond what is necessary, unless you’re a die-hard fan of the opera you’d never have realised it unless you already knew that this was the case. Even so, it still manages to flow and be catchy without feeling like a cheaper or changed version.

[youtube http://youtu.be/NehTc1nZPI4]

Performance

West has an astonishing voice that really lends well to the piece. His incredibly rich baritone voice is garnished effortlessly with subtle but thrilling vibrato. But whilst West’s voice is certainly divine to listen to, what makes him astonish here is his stage presence and sense of theatricality. The stage figuratively shrinks when he starts to perform, as he’s a musical story-teller of the finest pedigree. You hang on every note and blissful tremelando. He does a superb effort in bringing out the high drama and dark devices of Poe’s story and Hammill’s music.

One small criticism is that it;s sometimes difficult to get a grasp of what character’s voice is coming through at any given moment: it’s not immediately clear that it’s the narrator when spoken and Roderick when sung. Also, there’s currently the absence of Madeline from West’s reduction, with gender and vocal range being an obstacle he’s yet to tackle.

The main grumble is that, in it’s current form, the piece is far too short. Whilst you’re really starting to become utterly absorbed in the rich world West conjures, it suddenly ends, leaving you gasping for more. But hopefully as the piece continues to develop, the show will expand to be even more inviting and more satisfying than it currently is.

Verdict

Musically thrilling and astonishingly performed, this bold reduction keeps the piece well away from the grave. Dark and hypnotic, it’s a dark and dexterous show that should only get better as it develops.

[youtube http://youtu.be/OYyIoeqdZIM]

The Fall Of The House Of Usher was performed as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre, which took place at the Lost Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, 6th– 11th October 2014. For more information about the festival, visit www.solotheatrefestival.co.uk.


Opinion: Which “Sweeney Todd” to See?

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

It’s pies all round this season, for some reason, as London gets no less than THREE productions of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s masterful Gothic musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Going on right now is the production at the Twickenham Theatre that has had all the critics raving (including myself), and soon we’ll be getting another production in London’s oldest pie shop done by the Tooting Arts Club (TAC), and then the English National Opera (ENO) will stick it’s finger in by bringing Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson into the fray.

Recently, the ENO’s publicity shots have been getting a lot of flack because they look so SO bad, with professional West End photographer Darren Bell saying they made it look like “Mary Berry The Musical”.

But as much as it’s easy to scoff at these incredibly misjudged press images, there is the question is whether any of these productions are actually worth seeing.

ENO

Go?

Thompson as Mrs. Lovett may well be something quite special. She’s an incredible actress with a long an illustrious career, so seeing her take will undoubtedly be something unique. Furthermore, the chance to hear Sondheim’s incredibly rich and complex score played by a full orchestra is one not to be passed up.

Don’t Go?

I’m really unsure about this, for two reasons. Foremost, is the inclusion of Bryn Terfel. Now, that’s not to say I don’t rate Terfel as an opera singer. I think he’s marvellous, and seeing him as Wotan in Das Rhiengold at the Royal Opera House was something rather wonderful. But I have a massive pet peeve about opera singers doing musicals. Opera is a completely different style of singing to that of a musical. Every time I hear opera singers doing musical numbers or even pop songs, I cringe. It doesn’t sound right because it’s not the right style. Likewise, I wouldn’t expect Connie Fisher to handle La Boheme, and the very thought of Michael Ball’s opera album (this actually exists) brings me out in a cold sweat.

As beautiful a bass voice as Terfel has, I can’t see how adding operatic bellows to Sweeney’s part is really going to enhance it. In fairness, Sweeney isn’t a new experience for Terfel, having already done this semi-staged performance earlier this year at the Lincoln Centre, and also in a concert performance at the BBC Proms in 2010. From videos you can readily find on YouTube, he does seem to tone it done a bit. But compared David Badella and Ball’s acclaimed performances, it still sounds a bit out of place and far too arch. Though Sondheim himself, in his published collection of annotated lyrics Finishing the Hat describes Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as a “dark operetta”, it’s not really an excuse to ramp up the vibrato, no matter how established an opera star is.

[youtube http://youtu.be/ba6U4mZpG6Y]

Secondly, the fact that the ENO are only going to do a semi-staged production is really disheartening. Given the capability of the stage and some of the marvellous sets they’ve done for almost all of their productions, it seems incredibly lazy. It certainly works for the Lincoln Centre due to it’s lack of space but rather marvellous acoustics. But when you’ve got one of the largest stages in London at your disposal, it’s insulting to do so little with it. Plus, when tickets are going for as much as £155, far more than the top priced tickets for Chichester’s celebrated West End transfer, you’d expect at least some glitz and production value (although, there will be 300 £10 seats at each performance)! Thankfully, the terrible publicity shots belay the fact that the semi-staging still looks brooding. But I can’t see how it would better than the 2001 concert version in San Francisco with Patti LuPone, George Hearn, and Neil Patrick Harris. Here it was these behemoth performers that carried the show, rather than relying on moody lighting and some people dropping a grand piano on its back.

[youtube http://youtu.be/D3-4JHLO12Y]

Tooting Arts Club

Go?

You get pre-performance pie, a gin cocktail, and a sense of novelty.

Don’t Go?

Lynn Gardener recently wrote a very interesting piece on the gimmick of site-specific/”immersive” theatre. Ultimately, she states that, more often than not, it’s a term used as a sales pitch more than anything else. With only taking an audience of 32 into the tiny pie shop at a time, my misgivings is that it’s going to be very difficult to create a performance that’s of much substance, let alone conjurer up the wide variety of scenes and locations within the musical in what will be a very restrictive space. Therefore, on the face of it, this seems like a prime example of the cynical selling-point theatre companies undertake to lure in the punters. If you’re just going to sat be watching Sweeney Todd in a pie-shop, where’s the immersion in that? And what will take the production beyond shallow novelty to warrant something site-specific?

Harrington's Pie & Mash, Tooting.

Harrington’s Pie & Mash, Tooting.

That’s not to say it’s impossible. Derek Anderson’s production at the Twickenham Theatre is brimming with little innovations and tenacities that manage to reduce this massive musical into the tiny sardine-can space. But TAC will have to come up with something seriously good to even contend with the Twickenham production. In saying that, they have been getting a lot of praise for their recent site-specific theatre productions, so they could still pull a coup de grace none the less, and perhaps I should have a little more faith.

Twickenham Theatre

Go?

There’s not been any review that’s been less than 4*s. But particularly, Anderson’s characterisations played out by Badella and Sarah Ingram are astonishing and superbly performed.

Don’t Go?

Because you’ll be hard pressed to get a ticket! The show originally sold out its entire run, BUT there have been a few extra shows added, extending the run until 12 October. Buy them quick!

[youtube http://youtu.be/nG0AyrAdnGk]

Verdict

Given that it’s tried and tested, the Twickenham Theatre production is a version that you just can’t go wrong with. Therefore, if you have the chance, try and see this above others. Mind you, such an opinion is only based on the apprehensions I’ve outlined above, and am certainly not saying that either the ENO or TAC’s productions won’t be worth your time and money.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at:

English National Opera, London, WC2N 4ES, between 30 March and 12 April 2015. Tickets are £10 – £155. To book, visit www.eno.org.

Harrington’s Pie & Mash, London, SW17 OER, between 21 October – 29 November 2014. Tickets are sold out. For more information about tickets, visit www.tootingartsclub.co.uk.

Twickenham Theatre, London, TW1 3QS, until 12 October 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.twickenhamtheatre.com.