The Mikado at the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, Harrogate

There are large numbers who return each year to the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival at Buxton and Harrogate; what do they want from performances? Cosy, reassuring tradition? Or something fresher, more stimulating, even perhaps innovative? The Artistic Director of the National G & S Opera Company, whose performance of The Mikado I attended at Harrogate, apparently has no doubts: “Our productions remain faithful to text, music and generally to ‘traditional’ presentation of Gilbert and Sullivan as it has survived for 140 years”. (Perhaps it is worth pausing for the conjecture whether, at the other end of the operatic spectrum, patrons of the Bayreuth Festival might not welcome an analogous statement from its artistic administration?)

In terms of G & S theatrical presentation, “tradition” has features both good and bad. Given the undeniable political subtext to The Mikado, Richard Gauntlett’s production at Harrogate reassuringly adhered to the long-standing practice of interpolating witty contemporary references – including inevitably Brexit – into the text. And the sharpness of the satire was enhanced by characterisations which allowed British-Victorian traits to prevail over excessive japonaiserie. But there were also less attractive features pushing the show into the realm of cliché. One became, for example, weary of too many of the arias and ensembles evolving into dance-stepping cabaret routines. And, however much a part of the 140-year-old custom, is it necessary to impose encores onto an audience? They may milk additional applause, as “telegraphing” a funny line by significantly pausing before declaiming it may generate additional laughter; but both practices are patronising. They also rely on assumed familiarity with the text and music, thus inhibiting spontaneity. In short, as regards the theatrical dimension to this Mikado, the primary aim seemed to be to give the audience what it was assumed they wanted rather than the performers’ own conception of the piece.

Fortunately, the musical dimension provided more satisfaction. I do not know how many times Andrew Nicklin has conducted The Mikado but there was a freshness and lightness to his interpretation and a careful attention to the colour and phrasing in Sullivan’s score. So too the quality of the singing was higher than one often encounters in G & S performances. If Richard Gauntlett, who took on Ko-Ko as well as directed, erred by giving us too much parlando this was not true of his fellow soloists. The Yum-Yum, Ellen Angharad Williams, warbled sweetly with her pure soprano; David Menezes, as her lover Nanki-Poo, projected his attractive tenor powerfully and though Matthew Kellett, the Pooh Bah, describes himself as a baritone, the strength of his lower register suggests that his voice may now make him better suited to bass roles. The splendid contralto of Mae Heydorn, the Katisha, has a similar attribute – a pity that her fine vocal performance was marred by over-acting.