I've said in the past on this blog that, much as I love Gilbert and Sullivan, I usually can't bring myself to go to see their works performed any more. Part of this is just something that can't be helped by anyone who puts on a G&S operetta: there aren't that many of these works, and by design (Gilbert's design) the characters have no depth, so there really is very little you can do to make them fresh. If you know the music and lyrics and script, almost nothing a G&S production does can surprise you. But most productions try to solve this problem with gimmicks, rewritten lyrics and dialogue, non-singers in singing roles. None of this gives the plot or characters any more depth than they had before, and they make the production harder to sit through.
So maybe it's just my reaction against modern G&S performance, or just pure nostalgia, but I find that I'm more favorably disposed to the old G&S performance tradition -- that of the D'Oyly Carte company, which held the copyright on G&S in England until 1961 and was notorious for trying to do productions that aped the originals in sets, design, and stage business. (Lots of unwritten bits of business became absolute D'Oyly Carte requirements that no performer would change, including some bits that were introduced after Gilbert's death, like the Mikado laughing and screaming in the middle of his song. What was important to the D'Oyly Carte wasn't Gilbert's intentions, it was "tradition," no matter how those traditions got started.) But when I found two online excerpts from the 1966 D'Oyly Carte film of The Mikado, I watched them and thought: this isn't perfect, but I'd be happy to see The Mikado done this way today.
This film is just a regular performance done in front of a movie camera (and without an audience). And I might just order a copy. No, the performance isn't very lively, probably because of the absence of the audience and the apparent decision to use pre-recorded tracks. And the flaws of "tradition" are very clear in the delivery of the dialogue: that stylized, slowly-delivered parody of a type of acting that no longer was in favor by that time. (In Gilbert's time, of course, most plays were like that, and he probably did order his actors to to play the dialogue this way: emphatic, melodramatic, not obviously aware of the absurdity of the words they're saying.) But still, the stylized Victorian-melodrama delivery works better, and is certainly more appropriate to the material, than attempts to pep it up and make the actors obviously, consciously, play the dialogue for laughs. And while the D'Oyly Carte wasn't known for high musical standards, they did have some people with legitimate operatic voices that could do at least partial justice to Sullivan's music.
So click here to see Yum-Yum's song ("The sun whose rays are all ablaze") sung by Valerie Masterson, one of the D'Oyly Carte's best signings in the '60s.
The old-fashioned approach works best in the song, because there's no attempt to camp it up or make it "lively": it's a moment that depends entirely on the song and the performer. A lot of G&S productions seem to forget that. It doesn't work so great in the dialogue, but it's no worse than today's usual methods.
(The song itself is one of the most famous examples of the weirdness of the relationship between Sullivan's music and Gilbert's lyrics. The lyric, which Gilbert wrote first, is a hymn to conceit and vanity, a song about someone who sees all of nature as just barely matching up to her wonderfulness. Sullivan set it with a gorgeous, passionate melody. The music and lyrics are working at cross-purposes, yet they somehow seem to go together just right.)
And here's D'Oyly Carte's comic lead at the time (the guy who played the parts that George Grossmith originated), John Reed, singing the "Tit-Willow" song. Not of the highest standard either in singing or conducting (by the D'Oyly Carte's reliable but unexciting veteran conductor, Isidore Godfrey), but it trusts the material much more than a modern production would, and that now seems kind of charming. And even the work of Gilbert, the angriest Victorian of them all, needs to be played some charm.