Der Mikado (1984)
Narrator: Gerd Heinz
Der Mikado exists in two forms: a video that was shown originally on Swiss television, and a recording of excerpts from that production. The video has not been issued commercially, though there are copies taken off the air.
The recording evidently excludes some material found in the video, and so a narration is added to link disconnected passages together. The character names (as shown above) are spelled differently than usual on the recording credits, but in the video credits they have their traditional spellings.
This is a highly unconventional, yet fascinating, production of the opera. It appears to take place in a mansion somewhere in Germany or Switzerland. Numerous guests have been invited to a party, where a production of Der Mikado is the after-dinner entertainment. Edward, Prince of Wales, is one of those present, but the rest of the visitors are not identified by name.
The "audience", all dressed in Victorian-era formalwear, are seated at small tables, and there is a bar to the left-hand side. The Mikado set takes up about half of the room. But, sometimes characters leave the set and interact with the audience or conduct their dialogue at the bar counter (which is also used by the "guests"). The production was clearly designed for television, as the performers use the entire space, and only the fictitious audience is present.
The set itself is an open box, the three visible sides painted with clouds and nude figures. There are various doors and sliding panels in this mural allowing characters to enter and exit. There are also two curved mirror-image staircases leading to a top-level platform. Two red sofas are at the extreme left and right. Costumes and props are colorful and highly appropriate.
The cast were clearly chosen for their acting, and all the characters — regardless of whether you agree with the interpretation — are vividly portrayed. The singing suffers, unfortunately. Several numbers are fully or partly recited over the orchestra rather than sung. Numbers having more musical than dramatic effect, such as "I am so proud" and the Madrigal, are either dropped or curtailed.
Nanki-Poo, for example, is brilliantly acted, but he is a mediocre tenor without a strong top. Yum-Yum sings prettily enough, but I don't understand at all why "The sun whose rays" is recited throughout. Katisha's "Alone and yet alive" is half-recited, half-sung. More incomprehensible is the choice of a mezzo-soprano as The Mikado. She is made up in gold paint and a bald wig, and she looks believably masculine. But, the low notes are a struggle for her.
The performance begins with a long spoken introduction by the host to his guests. I understood none of this. The opera then begins in earnest. There are numerous musical cuts, but from the little German I know, it appears the words are translated faithfully, and the dialogue is mostly intact.
If you accept the underlying premise, is is a brilliant piece of theater, full of opulent visual images and striking characterizations. Many of the bits, though far from traditional, seem perfectly in character. For example, late in Act I, Nanki-Poo's abortive "suicide" is ritual hari-kiri, instead of hanging himself. In Act II, after The Mikado sentences the conspirators to death for compassing the death of the Heir Apparent, Pooh-Bah goes over to the bar and starts downing shots of liquor.
The end of the opera is bizarre. Shortly after the finale begins, a police inspector and a constable interrupt. There is an argument between the inspector, the host, and the cast. The actress playing The Mikado rips off her wig and joins the altercation. Since it's all in German, I have no idea what they're saying. But, everyone leaves the room, and servants are left re-arranging the tables. Then, the cast re-assemble outside the house and sing the end of the finale.
After I wrote this review, J. Donald Smith wrote and explained that the performance takes place in a brothel — "hence the racy nude pictures, the disappearing couples throughout the action, and the police raid at the end." I could have revised my review to reflect all of this, but I thought it more fun to leave the reader in suspense!
On the tape that I received, the next item is an abridged performance of The Pirates of Penzance enacted by animated stuffed animals, but the tape runs out before it is finished.
J. Donald Smith sent me this review of the audio of Der Mikado:
Listening to this recording, it is easy to understand why The Mikado has always been popular in the German-speaking world. It contains most of the musical numbers linked by one-sentence narrations. The performance features a reorchestration for an ensemble which is much heavier on brass than usual, contains some singing more reminiscent of the German Music Hall than Sullivan, and uses, in several numbers, an excessive amount of sprechstimme. The tempi for "The flowers that bloom in the spring" and "For he's going to marry Yum-Yum" are excruciatingly slow, but the rest of the numbers are excellent. One wishes that the conductor had spent more time studying Sullivan than Weill.
What are missing are the choruses at the beginning of each act, "Comes a train of little ladies," "Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted," "See how the fates," as well as the first half of each of the finales. Also absent is the first half of "I am so proud"; the triple counterpoint is untranslatable. ["Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted" is on the video. —ed.]
With two exceptions, the performances are excellent: Pitti-Sing alternates between a falsetto and a bass, making it sound like the role is performed by a man in drag (many of the vocal lines are given to Peep-Bo); the Mikado is a mezzo-soprano with a music hall technique. Ko-Ko is superb and would grace any G&S stage, while if one thinks Pooh-Bah is stuffy and pompous in English — well, just wait until you hear him in German!
The performance is taken from the sound-track of a video recorded for Swiss television, which has never been commercially released. The almost-complete video version works better, but I wouldn't be without the record for a change of pace.