Camp as Christmas

The Mikado and Robert le diable reviewed.

Richard Suart's Ko-Ko tailors Richard Angas's Mikado
Richard Suart's Ko-Ko tailors Richard Angas's Mikado. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou

The Mikado; Robert le diable
Royal Opera House, London WC2;
English National Opera, London WC2

Across the West End, novelty shows are springing up faster than the X Factor can produce stars to fill them. It may not have any shouts of “He’s behind you”, or even a middleaged man in drag, but with its chorus of medieval knights, a gleefully villainous devil and an orgiastic ballet of undead nuns, there’s no bigger pantomime this season than the Royal Opera House’s Robert le diable.

Ghostly and ghastly in not quite equal measure, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s grand opera was a succès de scandale at its premiere in 1831 and became one of the 19th century’s biggest operatic hits before dropping out of the repertoire almost entirely in the 20th. If ambition and sheer hulk are a measure of quality, then Robert is a winner. At almost four hours long, the score gives Wagner a run for his money, and with more borrowings than a kleptomaniac it offers a concise history of opera – a little bit of Mozart here, a coloratura flutter of Rossini there – all digested into an unmistakably (and unremarkably) French idiom.

Rarely staged and not seen in London for over 100 years, Robert was always going to be a curiosity, and a revolving-door of cast changes (the last substitution taking place just days before opening night) did little to dispel a sense that this devilishly difficult work might prove to be as cursed as its namesake. But the late arrival of the soprano Patrizia Ciofi and some gaudily allusive designs from Chantal Thomas ensured that ear and eye were at least partially compensated for the sugar-paper score.

A plot too convoluted to bother grasping sees an evil father (John Relyea) warring with a virtuous sister (Marina Poplavskaya) for the soul of Robert (Bryan Hymel), who for much of the action is more interested in Princess Isabelle (Ciofi) than either of them.

Laurent Pelly’s new production relocates the action to a 19th-century child’s toy box, with the knights (clanking loudly in their plastic armour) saddling up lifesize fibreglass steeds in primary colours, and pen-and-ink sketched landscapes providing the backdrop to a cardboard cut-out of a castle.

For those convinced of the music’s worth, this might all seem a little frivolous, a Gallic shrug of a concept that mocks its material before anyone else gets a chance. But short of playing it for melodramatic intensity, I’m not sure what other choice is open to a modern-day director; certainly there’s no way that the rampant and rutting ballet of nuns can be anything other than hilarious in a post-Shaun of the Dead world.

Ciofi is the vocal star – the only singer to have previously performed this rarity – and balances her deliciously offbeat heroine with characterful coloratura and no little skill for lightweight gems such as “Robert, toi que j’aime”. Poplavskaya’s unwieldy voice, by contrast, has little business trying to harness itself into the demure sweetness of Alice and blurts in and out of focus.

Hymel isn’t the loveliest of tenors but there’s no faulting his determination here, which gets him around the thankless demands of this high-lying role with only a little obvious straining. Relyea broods and schemes with aplomb, but not even a Bosch-inspired phantasmagoria and a glowing hell-mouth can make his villainy anything other than high camp.

If camp is what you’re after however, pay a visit to the Coliseum, where English National Opera are mounting their yearly celebration of Gilbert & Sullivan. Gilbert, incidentally, was responsible for a timely theatrical satire on Robert, rejoicing in the subtitle of The Nun, The Dun and the Son of A Gun, which proved no less a success in London than its inspiration.

Jonathan Miller’s Mikado may be getting on in years but its humour is still as sharp as the monochrome art-deco ensembles of his cast. From the single kiss-curl plastered to Nanki- Poo’s fervently moist forehead to the dancing chorus of bellboys and squeaking chambermaids and the tortured period vowels of the cast, it’s a fantasy of high camp.

Richard Suart is a seasoned Ko-Ko but from year to year always brings new details to the grubby pragmatism of the Lord High Executioner of Titipu. This season, a spirited mockery of Mark Rylance’s Richard III finds its way into the action, and his “Little List” (always a highlight) features such miscreants as Nadine Dorries, Sally Bercow, General Petraeus and the Laity of the Synod (“religious misogynists, I’ve got them on the list . . .”)

Reprising her role as Yum-Yum, Mary Bevan is a simpering delight, ably supported by Rachael Lloyd’s Pitti-Sing, but it’s Yvonne Howard’s Katisha – resplendent in furs and pearls – who unexpectedly touches an emotional nerve among so much silliness. “O Living I” (not one of Gilbert’s finest lyrics) can often seem mere padding in a plot ready to be wound up but here risked turning comedy to tragedy in its heartfelt richness.

Christmas is a time for tradition, for home comforts and familiarity. If you’re feeling brave by all means risk the once-in-a-lifetime novelty of Robert le Diable, but I’ll be getting my festive frolics at ENO with an operetta that has never yet fallen out of fashion, nor seems likely to.