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Max Rashbrooke Review: The Mikado, NZ Opera

The Mikado NZ Opera Saturday, February 25 Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

Politics and art are a little bit like politics and rugby: as the Springbok tour showed, you can't entirely separate the two. And there are certainly plenty of politics around the Mikado, a show that is notionally set in a highly stereotyped, Orientalist version of Japan, and a production of which was cancelled in Seattle in 2015 following protests from the local Asian community.

So concerns about the work of the piece have to be addressed; but they are complex, and probably better handled in another post. So what about this production itself, which premiered on Saturday night and runs in Wellington until tomorrow night?

The topline message is that this is a bright, deliberately chaotic modernised version of the show, one in which the acting and comedic elements are extremely successful, but the singing slightly more uneven. The basic aesthetic is Japanese stationery shop: lots of lurid colours, childish costumes and stylised sets. The sets are highly mobile and fluid, and help inject a fair bit of life into the production.

Despite being set in Japan, the show is essentially a satire on British high society and conventions, and that comedy comes through well. There's an exceptional acting turn by Byron Coll (the overenthusiastic fan from the All Blacks MasterCard adverts) as Ko-Ko, whom he plays as a sort of bumbling Scottish servant. It's extremely funny acting, some of the best I've seen on the operatic stage.

Also exceptional is Australian tenor Kanen Breen as Nanki-Poo, who stepped in at the last moment following a boating accident (no, really) to Jonathan Abernethy. He utterly dominates the space, and has a fantastic range of comic expressions and gestures. His chemistry with Amelia Berry (excellent as an alternately baffled and assertive Yum-Yum) is perhaps not quite there, but that's hardly a fault, given the limited rehearsal time.

Almost stealing the show is Australian bass-baritone James Clayton as the Mikado, clearly relishing the opportunity to camp things up, all twirling moustaches and sinister grins. He also displays the stellar voice that Wellington audiences heard last year (albeit in completely different circumstances, in Handel's The Messiah); his aria 'A more humane Mikado' is a particularly joyful combination of entertainment and menace.

But that excellent singing just reinforces the point that the singers aren't equal across the spectrum – in particular Coll who, notwithstanding his excellent acting, just doesn't have a very strong voice, something particularly obvious in his scenes with Andrew Collis as (a very funny) Pooh-Bah. It's an unfortunate compromise in so central a role.

Fortunately, Orchestra Wellington, under the assured hand of conductor Isaac Hayward, played with great sensitivity, adjusting to the varied vocal strengths on stage, and producing a remarkably beautiful sound considering their reduced numbers (just one or two per part). In short: despite some shortcomings, it’s great fun as a production, and works as entertainment. What political problems it poses, however, is another question.

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