I'm not much of an opera person. I can get down with a musical, and I dig going to some giant opera house and watching talented people belt out some classics, but I'm not going to sit around listening to soundtracks or watching performances on TV. My last Criterion encounter with opera was Bergman's The Magic Flute. It didn't end well. Add on to this the fact that The Mikado is in English, certainly the worst language in which opera can be performed, and it shouldn't be any surprise that I put off watching the film for a few months after Criterion announced its inclusion.
With all this baggage threatening to weigh it down, it's a good thing that The Mikado is one of the lightest confections in the Criterion catalog. Alternating between witty repartee and catchy upbeat songs (all of which is ironically delivered considering the constant threat of execution which is at the heart of the story), the opera is so clearly crafted with a popular audience in mind - and done so well in this regard - that its appeal seems genuinely timeless. My trepidation turned out to be totally unwarranted, and I genuinely enjoyed the film.
The story begins with a prince of Japan fleeing his father's court after being forced to become engaged to an older, unattractive woman. He assumes the identity of a traveling musician and subsequently falls in love with a woman who is a ward of the Lord High Executioner of a small town named Titipu (all of the names in the film are equally ridiculous and vaguely racist). The plot becomes much more complicated from there, but suffice it to say that farce is achieved and fun is had for all. The script is infused with puns, twists of logic, and double talk that is truly funny, and the performances - while extremely broad - are all pitch-perfect (in both ways) and entertaining.
Meant as a companion piece to their release of Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, the film stands quite easily on its own as a solid representation of the archived (if slightly adjusted) theatrical performance - much better, of course, than recent examples like The Producers and Hairspray, both of which were far superior films the first time around. I actually wonder if they had intended the film to be a supplement on Leigh's film's DVD rather than a separate release, but subsequently realized that the film was equally deserving of the full treatment. Either way, The Mikado is sure to be a real treat for fans of Gilbert and Sullivan, and a pleasant surprise for viewers like me who are less likely to be drawn to such endeavors.