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Review: Indianapolis Opera presents The Mikado

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4 stars

Clowes Memorial Hall, Oct. 15 and 17. At last! After a season delay due to opera finances, the Indianapolis Opera audience got its request for Gilbert and Sullivan's most famous, most often performed operetta, The Mikado (1885) — a satire on contemporaneous Japanese culture. Last Friday's presentation saw a Clowes Hall reduced in numbers from past productions, with a swath of empty seats toward the back of the main floor. Yet lots of people populated the lobbies before the production began and during its one intermission; it seemed an almost filled house.

William S. Gilbert authored the speech and lyrics while Sir Arthur Sullivan composed the fast-paced, mono-rhythmic music for this and their many other collaborations. The pair's output dominated the British musical scene in the 19th century's latter decades. Though they were termed "operettas" because of their light-veined, satiric nature, what's in a name? They were similar in many ways to the comic operas from other European cultures preceding them — and to many products of American musical theater in the 20th century. But they were also different. Sullivan's patter music — his songs, duets, quartets, etc.— fit perfectly as settings for Gilbert's snappy, bitingly satiric verses. What started as entertainment for the British masses became a distinctive art form, now appreciated world-wide and is most definitely not the first time that has happened.

But what served as satire for those Brits within their zeitgeist wouldn't be nearly so appreciated in our culture. Therefore, this production saw fit to substitute references to Viagra, the Colts, the Super Bowl and a host of Japanese car brands in certain select verses, especially the "won't be missed" ensemble. The intended effect clearly worked.

Though the singing did not average the higher caliber we've heard in some past IO productions, it mattered less here. Of the two principals and young lovers, tenor and IO newcomer Patrick Miller sang and spoke Nanki-Poo; soprano Laura Portune did likewise for Yum-Yum, also making her IO debut. But most impressive for their spoken deliveries were IO veteran Robert Orth as Ko-Ko (the Lord High executioner) and IO first-timer David Ward as Poo-Bah (the Lord High everything-but-executioner). Both gave us first-rate, stylishly exaggerated acting.

Interestingly (and unusually), contralto Susan Nicely offered the best singing voice in the company as Katisha, the "ugly" woman with "certain, beautiful body parts" (those "allowed" to be discussed in proper Victorian English society), who is after Nanki-Poo to marry her. Whereas Ko-Ko wants to marry Yum-Yum. The Mikado (i.e. the Japanese Emperor) creates edicts involving beheading and burying alive that cause much consternation among the principals throughout the two acts. But it turns out that Nanki-Poo is none other than the Mikado's son, something only Katisha knows at first. However, at the end, Nanki-Poo gets Yum-Yum and Ko-Ko gets Katisha, the Mikado is pleased, and everybody lives happily ever after (to coin a phrase).

I have to mention "Madrigal," possibly the most beautiful set piece Sullivan ever wrote. Appearing shortly following Act II's beginning, it is cast as a quartet, featuring Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing (mezzo Kristin Gornstein), Nanki-Poo and Pish-Tush (baritone Mark Gilgallon). Anticipating our young couples' marriage, they sing, "Brightly dawns our wedding day." Its harmonies are luscious and were nicely rendered.

A single set depicting the "quaint" town of Titipu was designed by Don Carson, appearing in both acts. All the townspeople, comprising the principals and IO chorus, carried Japanese fans which frequently opened with a clap (actually produced by another noise-maker). Stage director/choreographer Bill Fabris moved his assemblage in and out with ease, the entire production going smoothly. IO artistic director and conductor James Caraher led the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra nicely through Sullivan's rapid pattering. Ending at 11:05 p.m., The Mikado was no shorter than many "grand" operas and longer than some.

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