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Ellen Kent operas

La Traviata by Piave and Verdi; Carmen by Meilhac, Halevy and Bizet; Madama Butterfly by Giacosa, Illica and Puccini

Ukrainian Opera and Ballet Theatre, Kyiv

Opera House, Manchester and touring (see below)

January 10 - 12, 2024: 2 hrs 45 mins (La Traviata), 3 hours (Carmen), 2 hrs 30 mins (Madama Butterfly)

Scene from Ellen Kent's production of Carmen
The girls are here: a scene from Ellen Kent's production of Carmen

Banner showing a three and a half star review

Once again Ellen Kent is bringing popular classical operas by mainly eastern European performers on a one-show-a-night pattern to theatres throughout the country, in a four-month tour that began at Manchester’s Opera House.

The orchestra and 16-strong chorus are from the Ukrainian Opera and Ballet Theatre, Kyiv, and the soloists – many of them stalwarts of previous Ellen Kent opera productions over the years – are drawn from Ukraine, Moldova and beyond. It’s a remarkable feat of organisation to get the show on the road, and does a great service to Ukrainian artists who might otherwise find themselves without their usual opportunities: Manchester audiences regularly give them standing ovations when they unfurl the Ukrainian flag and sing their national anthem at the close of each performance.

The staging is basic and flexible: the semi-circular classical-style frame to the back of the stage used for two of the three shows doesn’t represent anything in particular (though it helps project the sound); lavish costumes and evocative props do the rest. And Ellen Kent, as director, knows how to tell a good story.

Carmen had a resoundingly warm reception on its first night, and much of that was down to the central protagonists. Natalia Matveeva (Carmen) has big and sultry tone and acts the femme fatale with unremitting sauciness and defiance, while Davit Sumbladze, from Georgia (a newcomer to Ellen Kent’s line-ups), is a very good fit for Don Jose – coming over as a tragic figure in his own right, caught up in emotions and decisions he can’t handl. He has some powerful and accurate high notes, which helps (particularly on the last note of the opera).

Iurie Gisca, a regular from Moldova on these tours, makes a fine show of Escamillo, the toreador, and Alyona Kistenyova sings Micaela strongly. The girls of the chorus enjoy their dancing and entered into the fight scene so enthusiastically on the night I saw that someone’s shoe went flying into the orchestra pit. Anastasia Blokha and Marharyta Bochakova, as Frasquita and Mercedes, are younger up-and-coming Ukrainian singers and did the cards duet very well.

The operas are under the baton of Vasyl Vasylenko. He likes to hit very fast tempi from time to time (in the smugglers’ quintet in Carmen, as so often eastern European conductors seem to do, but he lets his principals enjoy their moments in the spotlight and drew impressive and well balanced sounds from Verdi’s big ensembles, and some subtlety from the orchestra.

We were told that some of the performers arrived on UK soil on the day La Traviata opened, which might account for some weaknesses but, professional as ever, the Ukrainians put on a good show.

Their Violetta was Alyona Kistenyova, who has sung the role for some years now, and she dominates with strong tone and can act as if dying while sustaining vocal quality. Georgi Meladze, the Georgian-born (now Spanish) tenor, was Alfredo, and his intonation was a little uncomfortable, though he blended well in the high notes of the duet cadenzas. Vitali Cebotari took on Giorgio Germont – he may not sing the role in other performances, as Iurie Gisca is on the cast list, and other roles are also exchanged – and Marharyta Bohochova’s youthful and warm sound stood out as Annina.

For a review of Ellen Kent’s Madama Butterfly, which visited a year ago, see here.

More info and tickets here

Also at Liverpool Empire (Carmen January 13, Madama Butterfly 14); Bradford Alhambra (Madama Butterfly January 26, Carmen 27, La Traviata 28); Hull City Hall (Carmen January 30, Madama Butterfly 31); Sheffield City Hall (Madama Butterfly February 22, Carmen March 24); Blackpool Grand Theatre (Carmen February 29, Madama Butterfly March 23); Darlington Hippodrome (La Traviata March 21, Madama Butterfly 22); Sunderland Empire (Carmen April 19, Madama Butterfly 20); York Grand Opera House (Carmen April 26, Madama Butterfly 27).


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