Tag Archives: opera

At the theatre: English National Opera’s “The Mikado”

When my parents visited in May, we took them to see the English National Opera‘s (ENO) production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” It was such good fun that last weekend F and I attended another Gilbert and Sullivan production at the ENO — this time, “The Mikado”. Here’s my review:

Whereas the ENO “Pirates” took a minimalist and period approach to its setting and costumes, “The Mikado” took the cast and audience back to the 1920s. The set was a cream and white space on a tilted stage platform. The performers wore pristine suits and flapper dresses while speaking with über-posh English accents (plenty of diphthong!). There were even six male and six female dancers, dressed as waiters and maids, that added to the 1920s feel with tap dance and the Charleston. The only inconsistency was that, at least according to the libretto, they were still supposed to be Japanese.

Musically, “The Mikado” is a strong production. Anthony Gregory played Nanki-Poo with the right dose of romanticism and sang with a solid tenor voice. Mary Bevan’s Yum Yum complimented him well, although I was more impressed by Rachael Lloyd’s Pitti-Sing; she has more opportunity for comedy and has quite a few solos for a supporting character. Graeme Danby’s Pooh-Bah, however, stood out the most. Danby had solid comic timing in his (literally) multi-faceted role and his rich, agile bass voice and excellent diction were a joy to listen to. A musical highlight was listening to the above four singers join forces in Act II’s quartet, “Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day” — beautiful.

Fergus Macleod led the ENO orchestra to a great performance that complimented the singers without overpowering them. The men’s and women’s choruses had good intonation, although their diction could have been better. There was more spoken dialogue in “The Mikado” than I expected and it gave me a chance to revel in the wittiness and precision of Gilbert’s libretto.

Trust the ENO to inject some present-day politics and pop culture into Gilbert and Sullivan — the operettas already use parody, after all. The ENO used Ko-Ko’s opening monologue, “As some day it may happen” or “I’ve Got a Little List,” to get digs at the English rugby team, the VW emissions scandal, and even David Cameron’s “close encounter with a pig.” Brilliant.

Overall, the ENO’s “Mikado” is well worth seeing. The setting is fun, the singing is strong, and the libretto is spot-on. It makes a great way to escape and enjoy a rainy weekend afternoon. Go see it if you have the chance.

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At the Theatre: English National Opera’s “The Pirates of Penzance”

I grew up attending the occasional community theatre production of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, the most memorable being HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, and The Pirates of Penzance. That’s partly why discount TimeOut London tickets to the English National Opera (ENO) production of The Pirates of Penzance caught my eye. Even better, the dates coincided with my parents’ visit to London last week. My parents always enjoy a bit of theatre and music — after all, they’re the ones who dragged me to those community productions as a kid — so I snapped up some Saturday matinee tickets for Pirates. As if I needed further incentive, I also hadn’t yet been to see the ENO. Here’s my mini review of the production.

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The ENO’s The Pirates of Penzance was hilarious and good fun all around. We all liked the colorful, minimalist stage set: bold orange, green, and blue sliding half-circles, stairs, and a half moon “ship” worked effectively and kept the focus on the acting and singing.

Vocally, Claudia Boyle’s Mabel stole the show. Her effortless runs, pure tone, and range were particularly evident in the first half’s “Poor Wandering One.” The female chorus — playing the Major General’s daughters — produced a lovely one-voiced sound, and the male choruses (the pirates and the constables) were also strong.

While the singing was solid all around, unfortunately Robert Murray’s acting as Frederic was flat and couldn’t match Boyle’s comic timing as Mabel. Luckily, Jonathan Lemalu’s performance as the Sergeant of Police was spot-on and complete with a great Cornish accent; the character worked well alongside Rebecca de Pont Davies’ comically tragic Ruth.

David Parry led the orchestra well through the light and hummable score, although occasionally it took a few measures for the orchestra and singer(s) to settle into the same tempo.

I hadn’t seen a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta since before my days of musicology courses in college. With a much greater knowledge of 19th-century opera, I really appreciated the parodies of Romantic opera that Gilbert and Sullivan slip into Pirates: the overdone melodrama, impossible-to-fulfill promises, and an improbably (but pleasingly) happy ending.

In short, The Pirates of Penzance makes for a hilarious, rollicking afternoon and I’d highly recommend that you see the ENO’s production before its run ends.

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At the Royal Opera House: Puccini’s “La bohème”

For my birthday this year, F surprised me with tickets to see Puccini’s La bohème at the Royal Opera House in London. (He’s the best.) This July at the ROH, John Copley directs seven performances of his iconic production of La bohème — set in 19th-century Paris — that is 40 years old this year. The staging is quite magical, thanks in part to great sets designed by Julia Trevelyan Oman. There are a few different casts for this revival; we saw the first one, featuring Ermonela Jaho as Mimi and Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo.

Entering the Royal Opera House, located in one corner of London’s Covent Garden, feels like entering a different world. Not an elite one, as you may think, but an old-fashioned one where people mingle with drinks and time slows down for a little while. The theatre itself may have something to do with that: dating from the late 19th-century, it’s sea of red velvet and gold ornament, complete with candelabras around the edges that you can imagine once held real candles.

inside the Royal Opera House

inside the Royal Opera House

The opera itself was great. Having seen a couple of Puccini operas in the past (Turandot at the Met and Madame Butterfly at the Kyiv Opera in Ukraine), I knew what to expect in terms of continuous music and general tragedy. I was particularly looking forward to La bohème because the musical Rent — based on Puccini’s opera — is one of my favorites. The ROH did not disappoint. Cornelius Meister led the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a lush, Romantic rendition of the score and despite a few points when the orchestra overpowered the tenors, I hardly noticed the orchestra at all (which I think is how it should be in opera). Though the large ensemble scenes — particularly Act II — are somewhat hard to follow in La bohème, the arias are gorgeous.

In terms of the singing, Ermonela Jaho as Mimi stole the show. I’d never heard of her and was at first a little disappointed not to be seeing one of the bigger names (Anna Netrebko and Angela Gheorghiu will appear in the role for subsequent performances), but now I can confidently say that I didn’t miss the big names one bit. Jaho has lovely tone and an exquisite pianissimo on her high notes — her Si, mi chiamano Mimi gave me chills. She was believable as the shy seamstress and played the tragic heroine without melodrama. Castronovo (Rodolfo) had a lovely tenor and paired well with Jaho, though his swelling climaxes were often drowned out by the orchestra (not sure if that was because of where we were sitting or a genuine orchestra-voice balance issue). The other vocal standout was Jongmin Park as Colline, whose ‘overcoat aria’ in Act IV was beautiful and moving. Simona Mihai played a fine Musetta and the other supporting singers were strong.

Overall, I really enjoyed my first outing to the Royal Opera House (and who knows when the next one will be? Holy ticket prices!). Copley’s La bohème production is fantastic and magical, and the ROH delivers a great experience (though I do agree with the Guardian reviewer that it could do without the second interval). If you can get tickets, go.

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