The last time the Lyric Opera of Chicago staged "The Mikado" was in 1983 via a modern-day production by American director Peter Sellars. It had the romantic hero Nanki-Poo dressed as an Elvis Presley impersonator and the Emperor of Japan arriving in a convertible car.
Gilbert and Sullivan fans longing for a traditional Victorian "Mikado" still won't get one in Chicago director Gary Griffin's new Lyric production, which shifts the action to the early 1920s in a very Westernized Japan. Historically, this setting and time period is a slightly uncomfortable fit, since the real Prince Regent of the era would become the Emperor Hirohito who led Japan's Axis forces during World War II.
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Location: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, (312) 332-2244 or lyricopera.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8, 11, Jan. 7, 11, 15; 2 p.m. Jan. 5, 9, 13, 21
Running time: Approximately three hours with intermission
Parking: Nearby pay garages
Rating: For general audiences
But in terms of finding a strikingly visual way to update and interpret Gilbert and Sullivan's classic 1885 comic operetta (which really lampoons British class and power structures rather than any authentic Japanese customs), Griffin's new Lyric "Mikado" is a smartly elegant art deco dream-box decorated with an operatic powerhouse cast that gets the most out of the sprightly score.
The Lyric has truly scored major casting coups with American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as the lovelorn villainess Katisha and American bass-baritone James Morris as the bloodthirsty and benevolent title character. Not only is it a great pleasure to see such internationally esteemed Wagnerian singers kicking up their heels onstage, their supreme musicianship along with the rest of the cast should silence anyone questioning why the Lyric is producing such a popular work with so frivolous a reputation.
Griffin respectfully approaches "The Mikado" and never resorts to over-the-top "aren't we silly" antics, allowing the inherent comic absurdities in the timeless script and score to sparkle with his ensemble's own innumerable abilities (the dialogue scenes have been amplified, but the microphones get turned off for the singing). Griffin's "Mikado" approach is appropriately illustrated by designer Mark Thompson's deliciously lush Asian-inspired art deco costumes with a series of simple patterned backdrops of ginkgo leaves and cherry blossoms.
Much of the heavy comedic lifting comes courtesy of British bass-baritone Neal Davies as the cheap-tailor-turned Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko, who writhes his way through scheme after failed scheme. He's assisted by the supremely pompous, multi-titled on-the-take adviser of Pooh-Bah (the invaluable British baritone Andrew Shore).
On the romantic side of things, British tenor Toby Spence makes an ardent Nanki-Poo (complete with his colorful patch-plastered trousers), pairing nicely with the enjoyably overconfident ingenue of Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman's Yum-Yum.
Adding extra vocal (and often very comic) support is the starchy Pish-Tush of American baritone Philip Kraus (a nice low support in the Act II madrigal) and Yum-Yum's "Three Little Maids from School" cohorts of a very knowing Pitti-Sing (American mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner fresh from starring in the Lyric's "Carmen") and the reasonable Peep-Bo (soprano Emily Fons).
British conductor Sir Andrew Davis, now marking his 10-year anniversary as Lyric's music director, led a crisp account of Sullivan's score (though I would have preferred a fleeter tempo in the overture). The company honored Davis with a surprise chorus of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" on opening night, making this very British work a suitable celebration for the maestro's decade-long Lyric contribution. (Philip Morehead conducts the final four "Mikado" performances.)
Now this new Lyric "Mikado" might not feel entirely fresh, since English director Jonathan Miller has already updated the operetta to a 1920s English seaside resort for his iconic 1986 English National Opera production. But for any Gilbert and Sullivan fans unaware of Miller's "Mikado," that ignorance will be bliss for the Lyric's sleek and simply stylish approach to this frothy classic.