Traveling from Japan to Bulgaria via London in the space of a few hours would make for an impossible itinerary — except at Ohio Light Opera last Friday, July 20, when a matinee performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's Mikado was followed closely by an evening performance of Oscar Straus's The Chocolate Soldier (Das tapfere Soldat). No supersonic flights, jet lag or cultural shock were involved in OLO's accomplished productions of two delightful scores, just the excellent singing, acting, costuming and staging audiences have come to expect from a company that only gets better every season.
After the customary singing of God save the Queen, Mikado director Steven Daigle gave the capacity audience something to watch during Sullivan's lengthy overture: Queen Victoria and other Londoners visiting the Japanese Exhibition in Knightsbridge in 1885 which ran parallel to the creation of the Savoy opera. Eventually, doors in the handsome set — an oversized lacquered box — opened to become a time and space portal for the action, which took place in and around a traditional Japanese house.
Much of Mikado depends on its choruses — a energetic, fan-brandishing gang of males and a giggling, parasol-twirling gaggle of females — and OLO fielded two fine ensembles to back up the other important element, a characterful slate of principals. Stephen Faulk's attractive tenor made him a winning Nanki-Poo, here an itinerant minstrel who serenaded while strumming (!) on a trombone. Nicholas Wuehrmann's brilliant comic acting enlivened his role as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, and Geoffrey Kannenberg was appropriately mock-pompous as Poo-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else. Amy Maples, Sarah Best and Mary Griffin made a lovely trio as Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo, the Three Little Maids. John Callison made the most of his small role as Pish-Tush.
But the predictable show-stoppers — two veterans of theater who always light up the whole stage — were Ted Christopher as the Mikado and Alexa Devin as Katisha. Christopher's demonic laugh and prancing stage antics were riveting when he finally made his long-awaited appearance in the second act, and Devin made a beautiful thing out of her Medusa-like ugliness. Exaggerated makeup ratcheted both of their characters up to the next level. Their voices were outstanding, too.
In keeping with the long tradition of updating G&S patter songs and dialogue, Daigle and company made some very funny topical additions, most of which got laughs while others seemed to go right over the collective heads of the audience. Conductor Jonathan Girard's pacing was a bit lax at times, but Ko-Ko's duet with Katisha took off at warp speed. Shorter, more incisive articulation from the orchestra would have added sparkle to the show. A gratuitous sight gag (flatulence) came with a timpani glissando.
The production values of Mikado were top-notch. Charlene Gross's elaborate costumes, C. Murdock Lucas's elegant set design and Erich R. Keil's lighting worked beautifully together. Carol Hageman's choreography worked well, even if fans were deployed a bit too often.
Most of the Mikado production crew also worked their magic on The Chocolate Soldier, except the costume designer, who was Amber Marisa Cook. Soldier is an innocent but strangely engaging bedroom farce — at least the first act takes place in the Bulgarian boudoir of Nadina Popoff (Tara Sperry), where Lt. Bumerli (Nicholas Wuehrmann) a Swiss mercenary in the Serbian Army fleeing from the Bulgarian forces, climbs in through the window and eventually attracts the ardor of Nadina, her cousin Mascha (Caroline Miller) and her mother (Sandra Ross).
All of these male-deprived females independently autograph their pictures and press them into the pockets of the sleeping Bumerli, who has been loaned the dressing gown of the off-to-war paterfamilias, Colonel Kasimir Popoff (Boyd Mackus). The farce thickens after Bumerli takes off, the war ends, and he shows up to return the dressing gown (without checking its pockets) just as Popoff returns with the egotistical Major Alexius Spiridoff (Geoffrey Kannenberg) to claim his bride, Nadina. I won't spoil the rest of the story for you except to say that Nadina, after many vicissitudes, ends up with the soldier of her wishes.
Even if the plot of The Chocolate Soldier doesn't fall too far from the same tree that produced I Love Lucy, Oscar Straus is a talented composer whose melodies were admired by Schoenberg. His vocal lines are masterful, even joined to a clunky translation by Stanislaus Strange, and his orchestrations imaginative. The cast were uniformly excellent. Sperry, Ross and Miller had substantial music to sing and all three wrapped beautiful voices around the material. Ross was also wonderfully comic as the long-suffering Aurelia. Nicholas Wuehrmann (Ko-Ko in Mikado) got to sing more in his natural range this evening and was lyrical and expressive. Boyd Mackus, now in his 27th season with the company, still sounds rich and commanding. J. Lynn Thompson led a well-paced account of the score and the orchestra played with style and commitment. Beautiful wind solos were a standout. Cheerful peasant dances and bursts of musical energy from the Bulgarian soldiers added variety.
Mikado premiered in 1885, The Chocolate Soldier in 1908 — before the Titanic went down, and before the destruction of innocence brought by two world wars. It was charming to visit a world where curiosity about far-flung cultures brought over a million visitors to a Japanese village in London — or where the Bulgarian Army returns from battle looking as if they had just come from the dry cleaners. Or is that just the world of operetta — where hardly anyone dies, gets murdered or plunges off a tower as the curtain comes down and the good people always live happily ever after? It's a welcome change of scene, and Ohio Light Opera does it very well.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com July 24, 2012
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