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Japan in London

12/10/2001 -  and 12, 14 December 2001, 22, 25, 29, 30 January, 1, 5, 7, 9, 14, 16, 19 February 2002

John Blow: Suite from "Venus and Adonis"
Henry Purcell: In Nomine à 6 and à 7
William Lawes: Fantasy à 6 from "Consort set VII"
Kengyo Yoshizawa: Chidori
Michael Berkeley: Glass Tears
Yui Kakinuma: To the Cherry Blossom
Traditional: Saji
Matthew Locke: Suite from "The Tempest" (Curtain Tune, Lilk)
Henry Purcell: Chaconne from "The Fairy Queen"

Akikazu Nakamura (shakuhachi), Michiyo Yagi, Maki Isogai (koto), Ken Aiso (violin)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Peter Stark (conductor)

Arthur Sullivan: The Mikado

Mark Richardson (The Mikado), Bonaventura Bottone (Nanki-Poo), Richard Suart (Ko-Ko), Graeme Danby (Pooh-Bah), Riccardo Simonetti (Pish-Tush), Alison Roddy (Yum-Yum), Victoria Simmonds (Pitti-Sing), Fiona Canfield (Peep-Bo), Frances McCafferty (Katisha)

ENO chorus and orchestra

Mark Shanahan (conductor), David Ritch (revival director), Jonathan Miller (original director)

Puccini is said to have studied the Anglo-Irish Sullivan's music for The Mikado when he was planning Madama Butterfly, and it is suggested from time to time that Britain and Japan, two smallish northerly groups of islands with an imperial past, have some kind of natural sympathy. Gilbert of course found the idea of absurd Japanese court ritual a handy marker for his own satire of English manners, though Jonathan Miller's production of The Mikado (revived at the ENO from 10 December, seen 14 December) removes a layer of the work's humour by setting it explicitly in England. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's concert at the QEH on 10 December suggests a more complex and interesting set of musical resonances between the two cultures.

While Blow, Locke, Lawes and Purcell were writing for the English court, and the commercial successors of court masques, the Edo court in Japan was developing the first stage of the inward looking rituals that formed a defence against all things non-Japanese, and which had a continuing and pervasive effect on foreign perceptions of Japan long after the country started to open up at the start of the nineteenth century. The OAE's programme set the work of the English composers against the influences of the music of the Edo period in modern music. The result was engaging, and far from plonkingly didactic as it might have been. The theatre music ranged from the filigree (Blow) to the bumptiously demonic (Locke), but it all had a strong sense of rectangular form, which had little to do with the linear accumulations of the Japanese chamber music, or, on a larger-scale and more impressionistically, of the two modern orchestral works. Kaninuma's To the Cherry Blossom had its own kind of drama, though, with the shakuhachi player entering upstage and playing as he moved to the traditional soloist's spot, in turn with the violinist. The violinist was Ken Aiso, who conceived this fascinating programme after hearing this work.

It was worth the price of admission just to hear Akikazu Nakamura play the traditional Saji, a virtuoso monologue for shakuhachi that makes Berio's Sequenze look like textbook studies.

Sullivan in The Mikado regards Japanese music as being simply pentatonic and in simple time, but he inserts an ingenious set of variations on the Japanese national anthem of the day in otherwise pure English operetta, rather as both Busoni and Puccini later get "Greensleeves" into their Turandots. But then Sullivan's music is such a rich fantasy of allusion and pastiche that it is no surprise to find a Japanese royal march among the Wagnerian Flower Maidens, Anglican anthems and Elizabethan madrigals.

If Jonathan Miller's production loses the key joke (these funny foreigners are us), he and the revival director David Ritch get plenty of others. The whole thing is of course as camp as Kylie, and the transfer to an art deco English seaside hotel circa 1920, with nippies and bellboys, brings that out perfectly. The St Trinian's schoolgirls are a few years adrift historically, since they really belong to 1950s and the last gasp of the old order on the defensive, but they are also great fun and bring out the obsession with sex that Gilbert works in so effectively without a single naughty word. Grisliness is also part of the fun, but this gets played down a bit, limited to a dance by decapitated bodies during the trio where Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah and Pitti-Sing contemplate being beheaded. Richard Angas' sinisterly genial Mikado normally puts a lot of the gore back in, but he was off sick, replaced by a slightly anxious sounding Mark Richardson, still splendidly camp but less Sidney Greenstreet and more Kenneth Horne.

The main pleasure of the evening though was, quite unusually for Gilbert and Sullivan, the singing. Richardson's slight shortfall in theatricality was more than made up for by glorious singing. Richard Suart's Ko-Ko was clinical, a different funny voice for every sentence, but "TitWillow" was positively beautiful, a pearl of a parlour ballad. Graeme Danby as Pooh-Bah and Riccardo Simonetti as Pish-Tush sounded Verdian, in spite of their comedy vowels (strangled county and Lancashire respectively), while Bonaventura Bottone as Nanki-Poo definitely was a musician, though we didn't hear his trombone playing.

The three little maids collectively combined squeaky vowels and head voice without being painful or unmusical. Alison Roddy as Yum-Yum sounded glorious in "The sun whose rays", while Victoria Simmonds was an alluring Pitti-Sing -- Pooh-Bah's aversion to youth unsurprisingly didn't last long. But Frances McCafferty was a truly peerless Katisha. She acted and looked a touch like Clarissa Dickson Wright (of Two Fat Ladies), but sounded like a contralto English Eboli. Katisha is presumably modelled loosely on Marcellina in The marriage of Figaro, but McCafferty gave her something more than elegiac, a touch of real tragedy.

The orchestra, conducted by Mark Shanahan, was more conventional for the genre than the singers. They didn't really lose any of the musical jokes or allusions, but they were a bit short on verve and style. Still, they didn't do any harm to a very enjoyable performance.

H.E. Elsom



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