Thursday, March 31, 2011

Two new DVD releases are a perfect pair

A painter may paint a picture, a composer may write a beautiful melody for solo piano, but in the world of the theater (and here I count motion pictures as well), one person may have a vision, but production is a collaborative art. W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan worked together on a total of 14 comic operas, of which “The Mikado” is far and away the most popular, and arguably the best. Two new releases from the Criterion Collection highlight the work of Gilbert and Sullivan in different ways. The 1939 screen adaptation of “The Mikado” is now on DVD and new to Blu-ray, and British director Mike Leigh’s “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) also gets a deluxe DVD and Blu-ray treatment. That film dramatizes the writing, production, and premiere of “The Mikado.”

It’s hard to explain the hold "The Mikado" had on popular culture at one point, but Gilbert and Sullivan tapped into a fascination for all things Eastern when they wrote the work. “The Mikado” was used to sell everything from lampshades to soap in the 1880s, and even into the late ‘30s, when the feature film of the opera was produced, "The Mikado" was being interpreted on stage in a myriad of different ways.

The DVD/Blu-ray release of “The Mikado” from Criterion includes several special features that enrich one’s experience of the film and the opera. Mike Leigh, whose film “Topsy-Turvy” recounts the original D’Oyly Carte production, offers his thoughts on the opera. And scholars Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail Jr. speak at length on the film, the history of “The Mikado,” and its comparison to what Japan was really like (answer: not much).

British director Mike Leigh, known for contemporary chamber dramas, was looking for a way to tell a story about “what we do,” he says, referring to the world of film and the theater. To do so, he turned to the famous partnership between lyricist W. S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. Leigh says on the commentary track that accompanies “Topsy-Turvy” on DVD and Blu-ray that he was amazed by how much blood and sweat they poured in to something that was so trivial as their 14 operettas, that were among the most popular works of their day. But of course they’re not entirely trivial; Gilbert and Sullivan used their fanciful settings to satirize and mock the establishment.

Fran├žois Truffaut once said that movies should express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of it. In the case of “Topsy-Turvy,” agony may be too strong a word. An artist's life can be a lonely and melancholy one, even as in the midst of public adulation. And it's hard work. Agony or joy? Perhaps it’s a little of both at the same time.

Read the full reviews of "Topsy-Turvy" and "The Mikado" online here:

[Still from "Topsy-Turvy" courtesty of The Criterion Collection]

--Nathan Cone

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