The New York City Opera scored its third hit in a row last night at Wolf Trap with a production of "The Mikado" that was as funny as it was musically delightful.
Gilbert and Sullivan's cockeyed view of love and death among the Japanese was the third and final piece in triptych devoted to views of the Far East through the eyes of Western opera composers. It followed two Pucinni operas: "Turandot," a passionate fable set in a mythical China, and "Madame Butterfly," a view of doomed love in a recognizable Japan. And it gave some refreshing comic relief (ranging from broad slapstick to arch comedy of manners) after the emotional intensity of that had poured across the footlights earlier in the week.
The City Opera is a repertory company, like England's D'Oyly Carte, which set the standards for Gilbert and Sullivan for a century. This production shows a prime virtue of repertory opera in the smooth way the performers work together in familiar roles. But it is an operatic company, not a specialized comic ensemble, and thus it has ready access to voices considerably better than those usually associated with D'Oyly Carte. The singers -- solo, choral and ensemble -- were excellent throughout. The comedy took a while to warm up, but it reached a pinnacle in Act 2.
The City Opera has not only assembled a superb set of voices, it has found or trained fine singers who can also act effectively in that most demanding of assignments, stylized comedy.
As can easily happen in Gilbert and Sullivan, the comic performers stole much of the spotlight from the romantic leads. This was particularly true last night in the case of mezzo-soprano Jane Shaulis, a larger-than-life, rich-toned and intensely funny Katisha; Richard McKee, whose bass-baritone voice is almost too beautiful for the role of Pooh-bah, Lord High Everything Else, and baritone James Billings, who blends singing and acting ability seamlessly in the role of Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner. All three are versatile performers in every aspect of opera, well seasoned in many roles with the City Opera and other companies, and they bring to Gilbert and Sullivan a musical dimension that it too seldom enjoys.
Leigh Munro's vocal ability was evident from her first entrance as one of the "three little maids from school" in Act 1, but her considerable talents as a commedian were not fully apparent until her monologue with the mirror at the beginning of Act 2. Tenor Rico Serbo brought to the role of Nanki-Poo a voice qualified to sing the Duke in "Rigoletto" and Alfredo in "La Traviata." If his timing and inflection of spoken comic lines were not quite as impressive as those of the singers named above, he had a role that offered and required relatively little in that department.
Also worth mentioning are Cynthia Rose, who sang beautifully as Pitti-Sing, and William Wildermann, who made much of the small title role -- particularly the song about crime and punishment -- aided considerably by a superbly elaborate costume. The sets (mostly silk-screens) had a simplicity not inappropriate for a theatrical work about Japan, the costumes were highlighted by some absurdly comic men's hats, and the stage direction of Lofti Mansouri approached the work with a blend of reverence and lightness exactly right for a comic classic. David Stahl's conducting paced the evening neatly and enhanced the sparkle of the performance on stage.
This was a "Mikado" in which all the elements worked together with unusual effectiveness.