Public Broadcasting Service's ``Great Performances'' is inaugurating its new season with director Jonathan Miller's updated look at Gilbert and Sullivan's ``The Mikado.'' The production was devised for the English National Opera, and shared by the Los Angeles Opera and the Houston Grand Opera. The press material states that Mr. Miller was inspired by the Marx Brothers' style of Hollywood movie. Unfortunately, as filmed at the English National Opera, the production is desperately overwrought, trying manically to be witty, campy, and droll. The set is all white, the costumes black and white, the makeup done in leering whiteface caricature, punctuated by black eyeliner, wigs, and mustaches. It very possibly looked fine in the expanses of the theater, but under the cruel scrutiny of the camera it is ugly.
John Michael Phillips's video direction is full of awkward angles and poorly composed frames, and it gives a sense of what is going on around the performers only by means of ill-timed montages.
The singing is indifferent, even though this cast is meant to be the cream of the English National Opera crop. Eric Idle, of Monty Python fame, is the Ko-Ko, and he has a few amusing moments; but one cannot help observing that Dudley Moore, who performed the role in the Los Angeles version of the production, would have been a better choice for an American audience.
``Mikado'' need not be done in stultifyingly literal Japanese surroundings, as was the case with the Stratford (Ontario) Festival production seen on the Arts & Entertainment cable channel a few seasons back. But so poorly gauged is this current offering that, if Jonathan Miller had not been involved, I doubt it would ever have made it to PBS.