SULLIVAN: The Mikado
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the glorious little Japanese opera
Such was the evaluation of the 1885 Gilbert and Sullivan masterpiece by the distinguished music critic and voice teacher Herman Klein (1856-1934) in his 1925 book of reminiscences. As Arthur Jacobs reminds us, however, in his Arthur Sullivan - A Victorian Musician, 1986, the Mikado is really in every respect as English as it could possibly be, its pseudo-Japanese, willow-plate exterior merely a comic mask, a picturesque painted screen to camouflage and soften Gilberts trenchant satire on English social mores.
Exotic Japan was a popular concept of late Romanticism and the contemporary London vogue for things Japanese included the designs of the Aesthetics popularised by Libertys as well as a Japanese Village exhibition held in Knightsbridge during early 1885. William Gilbert (1836-1911) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) had already staged successful operetta seasons in the capital under the management of Richard DOyly Carte (1844-1901). Beginning with Trial By Jury, commissioned for the Royalty Theatre in 1875, these also included, for the Opera-Comique, The Sorcerer (1877) and HMS Pinafore (1878). It was this last that also established the transatlantic reputation of Gilbert and Sullivan. First performed on 14th March, 1885, at the Savoy, the West End theatre DOyly Carte had meanwhile built in 1881 and which had, the previous year, seen the first performance of Princess Ida, The Mikado, under the composers baton, ran for 672 performances. Its world record initial run, which remained unbroken by any Gilbert and Sullivan production until a Broadway revival of Pirates of Penzance in 1981, has since been underlined by the operettas undying international popularity. Twice filmed in Great Britain, in 1939 and in 1966, well over a century later it is as popular as ever, certainly by far the most popular of all Gilbert and Sullivan collaborations and, in the opinion of many experts, their finest score.
Several recorded versions were made on 78s, the first complete edition being an acoustic of 1918, "recorded under the personal supervision of Rupert DOyly Carte", in which the principal rôles were taken by HMVs regular opera singers, including Robert Radford, Edna Thornton and John Harrison. Among various later, electrically recorded versions, one by HMV, made in 1926, starred Darrell Fancourt and featured Henry Lytton, Bertha Lewis, Derek Oldham, Leo Sheffield and other noted Savoyards in their time-honoured rôles. This re-mastered version of 1950, featuring the New Promenade Orchestra under Isidore Godfrey, who joined DOyly Carte in 1925 and was the Companys Musical Director from 1929 to 1968, was sonically ahead of its time. Early Hi-Fi, it was a Decca FFRR (Full Frequency Range Recording).
The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu - Synopsis
Having fallen foul of the Mikados draconian moral law, Ko-Ko the tailor is condemned to death for flirting but, after being reprieved, is appointed Lord High Executioner. He is betrothed to Yum-Yum, one of his three "maids from school" wards. Yum-Yum, however, loves the itinerant musician Nanki-Poo, who has confided to her that he is really the Mikados son now disguised as a minstrel to escape the unwanted advances of his ageing fiancée Katisha. The Mikado has expressed his displeasure at the current lack of executions and ordered that another take place within a month. Despairing at the loss of Yum-Yum, but not keen on suicide, Nanki-Poo agrees to be executed -if he may marry Yum-Yum within the month.
Act 1 As the tuneful, mock-oriental Overture  subsides, a chorus of Titipu noblemen introduce themselves . Incognito, Nanki-Poo enters with ballads and guitar. Somewhat agitated, he inquires where he may find Yum-Yum  and proceeds to describe his nomadic, minstrel existence . Pish-Tush, a noble lord reminds him of the Mikados "stern decree" on flirting and its consequences and tells him of Ko-Kos recent reprieve and promotion to Lord High Executioner . Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else, appears. He attempts to discourage Nanki-Poo from his suit of Yum-Yum who, he informs him, will that very day be wed to Ko-Ko . Dismayed, Nanki-Poo is left to reflect on his predicament  as Ko-Ko, newly released from jail enters, amid pomp and circumstance . He gleefully outlines his future role as Lord High Executioner . As Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah depart to discuss the wedding details the girls enter, headed by Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing  and sing of their new-found freedom "from scholastic trammels" . Discreetly flirtatious, they flatteringly cajole Pooh-Bah who joins them in a quartet . The crowd departs, leaving Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo alone together. He confides that he is really the Mikados son and explains the true reason for his departure from court. Both are painfully aware of the new law on flirting . At the approach of Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush, they depart in opposite directions. Ko-Ko reads the Mikados letter regarding the lack of executions in Titipu during the past year. Unless a victim be found the post of Lord High Executioner will be abolished and the town of Titipu downgraded to a village. The three men rack their brains for a solution to the dilemma  before Ko-Ko sees Nanki-Poo, rope in hand, contemplating suicide. He persuades the young man to be beheaded instead. He agrees to let him marry Yum-Yum on condition he die within a month. A crowd of townsfolk assembles to greet the news and join the lovers in a joyous chorus. As Pooh-Bah adds his own special congratulations, Katisha enters in grand operatic style to claim her "perjurd lover, Nanki-Poo". She attempts repeatedly to reveal Nanki-Poos true identity, but the others do their utmost to preserve the festive mood by drowning out the word Mikado. As the act closes, amid full chorus and ensemble, Katisha exits in high dudgeon, swearing revenge .
Act 2 Assisted by the other girls, Yum-Yum attends to her bridal toilet . Left alone, she sings of her youth and beauty . Her two friends return and remind her of the impending doom of Nanki-Poo who, entering with Pish-Tush, finds the girls in tears. He attempts to cheer them in a madrigal . Ko-Ko enters with the bad news of a decree which states that if a man be beheaded, his wife must be buried alive. They consider the predicament in a lively trio  before the arrival of the Mikados troops . The Mikado enters in procession with Katisha  and summarises the catalogue of punishments he has devised . He is pleased to hear that an execution has taken place and asks for more details, whereupon Ko-Ko, Pitti-Sing and Pooh-Bah invent a colourfully gruesome account . Duly impressed, the Mikado is at first taken in by their story and passes swiftly on to the disappearance of his son. Katisha reads Nanki-Poos name on the death certificate. The executions of Ko-Ko, Pitti-Sing and Pooh-Bah are ordered for "compassing the death of the Heir Apparent" and, as the party leaves, the Mikado joins them in a glee on the injustice of this world . Next, Nanki-Poo tells Ko-Ko that he should solve the dilemma himself by marrying Katisha , who now has the stage to herself to contemplate her own plight . Ko-Ko enters and begs Katisha to marry him instead, softening her resistance with a touching lament . Katisha reflects and, yielding to Ko-Kos entreaties, joins him in a lively duet . The