09 June 2011

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2011: ‘The Mikado’

With joyous shout and ringing cheer: Cast members Meaghan Deiter (Katisha), Logan Rucker (Nanki-Poo), Lane Johnson (Ko-Ko), Jessica Cates (Yum-Yum), and Matthew Young (Mikado).
Illustration by WVM©

The Mikado must have looked like the safest bet when Fort Worth Opera programmed its 2011 festival: a perennial favorite, Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Japanese” operetta doesn’t require “the five greatest singers in the world,” as Il Trovatore does, and it doesn’t ask the audience to venture into unfamiliar rep, as Julius Caesar and Hydrogen Jukebox do. John de los Santos devised a lively staging, and an appealing young cast cavorted about Bass Hall, to the evident delight of most of the audience. Yet in the event, Mikado turned out to be the season’s biggest gamble, and for this listener, it didn’t quite pay off.

My reservations arose almost entirely from the relative youth and inexperience of the cast. In the great character roles of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, and Katisha, the Mikado’s presumed “daughter-in-law elect,” baritone Lane Johnson and mezzo Meaghan Deiter both sang, if anything, too sweetly, and they capered ably enough. But neither artist possesses the authority that seasoned pros deploy to put these roles across — and how can jokes about Katisha’s age register correctly when the singer is so young (and quite pretty)?*

Like Deiter, tenor Logan Rucker is a Studio Artist with this company; thus he’s just about the right age for Nanki-Poo, and his acting duties posed no evident challenges. His singing fell far short of the mark, however: he found just one vocal color and stuck with it throughout the evening, suggesting that, at this point in his career, he really was over-parted.

Such shortcomings would hardly be noticed in a conservatory production, and I repeat, the audience at Bass Hall had a marvelous time on June 4. But of the principals, only soprano Jessica Cates (Yum-Yum) seemed fully ready to assume her role on a professional stage, bringing an aptly luscious lyric voice, zesty comic acting, and smashing good looks. As Pitti-Sing, mezzo Amanda Robie (Pitti-Sing) shone brightly, and baritone Matthew Young’s Mikado ultimately won me over, while baritone Jesse Enderle was undone by de los Santos’ complete misreading of Pooh-Bah’s character. (Pooh-Bah’s multiple civic titles are an indication of pomposity — not hyperactivity, not multiple-personality disorder.)

De los Santos updated the scene to modern-day Japan, as much a fantasy construct here as Gilbert intended the town of Titipu to be, if somewhat less exotic. Cell phones, manga haircuts, Hello Kitty backpacks and Sailor Moon uniforms were displayed with good humor, and Ko-Ko’s “Little List” was recorded — where else? — on an iPad. Most impressively, de los Santos, who’s also a choreographer, kept the stage constantly moving, whether in ensemble dances or in an exquisite pas de deux for SegWay.

Fort Worth’s music director, Joe Illick, seemed less inspired than I’ve heard him on other occasions, and he had trouble maintaining the effervescence in this score. (Witness his stumbling account of the “cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block,” a number that doesn’t work if it isn’t precise.) Though Bass Hall’s proportions are just about right for projecting Savoy material, the company resorted to miking and amplification, ostensibly for dialogue scenes. This only rarely seemed intrusive aurally, and it fit right in visually: of course these up-to-date Japanese folks would wear microphones on their faces!

Evidently other critics were less forgiving than I of the audio technology, however, and Johnson had some choice words for them in the list song, which he updated at least three times over the course of the run with references both newsy and local. This time-honored practice added much to the fun, of course, and the audience cheered. So did I. But my reaction was better described as “modified rapture.”

*NOTE: Deiter was heard to much better advantage in Julius Caesar, which I attended the next day; she was thoroughly charming in the trouser role of Nirenus.

1 comment:

William V. Madison said...

Lest I forget -- because I had to miss Trovatore, my lone opportunity to witness the Fort Worth Opera chorus came with Mikado. The quality I prize above all in this team is the ability to communicate the sheer pleasure they derive from being onstage; we got abundant evidence of that here. They made the evening even more fun.