The Gilbert and Sullivan canon perhaps achieves the pinnacle of its greatness with The Mikado. The ninth of their fourteen collaborations, it was premièred at the Savoy Theatre in 1885 and the gentlemen were rewarded with an extraordinary success.

Simon Butteriss as Ko-Ko
Simon Butteriss as Ko-Ko

It is no secret that today Gilbert and Sullivan, or the Savoy Operas in general, as a genre divide music opinion: there are those whom deem it trivial, mincingly sickly and musically repetitive, and those who consider it musical slapstick worthy of putting on professionally for novelty value or as a vehicle for amateur companies to fool around to quaint tunes. In my view this opinion needs drastic musicological and literary reassessment in order that we may benefit from the full gamut of humour, satire, joy and sadness afforded by all the Savoy Operas.

The Mikado in particular has achieved a rather worthy state and has lost something in translation over the years. It is not a serious work, nor was it ever intended to be, but neither is it a totally ludicrous slapstick, send-it-up and camp-it-up entertainment bordering on stupidity. In brief, The Mikado is an English satire on exotic themes – it is the English playing at being Japanese, and consequently not an accurate representation of the late 19th-century English view of Japan, but rather a picture postcard with a few comic twists for the purpose of satirical entertainment drawing on recognised Japanese costume and setting for effect.

As the first of four professional productions to be presented this year by the Gilbert and Sullivan Company at the Buxton Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, this Mikado is a production of intense joy. In this new, fresh-faced production directed expertly by Simon Butteriss, who also assumes the role of Ko-Ko, humour, sensitivity, satire, delicacy and simplicity reign abundantly.

The sets are bright and colourful, the lighting sympathetic to mood and sentiment regardless of time of day. The costumes and make-up are exactly what one would hope for in a “traditional” production of The Mikado, as colourful as the sets and as exquisite an example of what can be done on a budget smaller than that of La Scala – truly any opera house in the world could not achieve better results lest they set the performance in a Japanese garden.

The orchestra, directed by Timothy Henty, are on the whole very good but some scratchiness in the strings was minorly distracting – though this was only apparent in the overture. Each song was well paced and where necessary made allowances for comic effect by the Japanese vase-full.

From the outset the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus were brilliant – every one a team player who sang and gave their all, in synchronised comedy incorporating fans, plant pots, soil, dust pans and brushes and even, believe it or not, a hoover and a stolen wig. These ladies and gentlemen of Japan must love this music dearly, consider it a delightful romp, or are being very well paid to endorse such commitment. Furthermore, their diction is excellent.

Pish-Tush, played by Ian Belsey, suffered a lost voice but did not shy away from the stage whilst his songs were sung from the orchestra pit by Alistair McCall, who filled in admirably.

Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo, played by Annette Wardell, Angela Simkin and Soraya Mafi respectively, were quite the youthful trio, and youth of course must have its fling; they either are young or have very convincing promotional photos – who can tell with all that stage make-up? Annette Wardell’s yummy rendition of “The sun whose rays” might soften the heart of even the most frustrating Mikado. Angela Simkin has an exceedingly sweet voice that might brace any man’s nerve, let alone Nanki-Poo’s at his fictitious execution. Finally Soraya Mafi’s Lancashire accent added an extra depth of humour to our Japanese girls.

Sylvia Clarke’s Katisha deserves nothing less than for all commentators to bow, bow, before her daughter-in-law elect. Graceful even in the loss of her wig, her bold alto register lends itself well to Gilbert and Sullivan’s lonely and misunderstood anti-heroine. Her right shoulder blade and left elbow are truly quite exquisite.

The Mikado himself, played by Simon Masterson-Smith, sang and acted with all the assumed dignity due to an Emperor. Bruce Graham’s Pooh-Bah was equally dignified in every one of his state duties, singing with perfect diction and clear tone.

Oliver White is a gifted comic actor who plays the young hero Nanki-Poo admirably. His fine tenor register is robust, clear and amounts to a most entertaining performance.

Simon Butteriss as Ko-Ko excelled on all fronts and to compose a little list of his vocal, directing and acting skills would surely not be missed – but I won't. Instead I shall let Gilbert finish for me and say: “the echoes of their festival shall rise triumphant over all”.

****1