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Ellen Kent's Madama Butterfly

Updated: Jan 12

Puccini, Illica, Giocosa

Senbla, Opera International and the Ukrainian Opera and Ballet Theatre, Kyiv

Opera House, Manchester

January 26, 2023: 2hrs 30mins

Ellen Kent's Madama Butterfly: the 'little house'. cr Opera International
Ellen Kent's Madama Butterfly: the "little house". All pics: Opera International

The most moving thing about last night’s one-night performance by the Ukrainian company brought again to the UK by Ellen Kent, was at the very end, after the curtain calls, when they unfurled their flag and sang their national anthem to a packed Manchester house, with everyone on their feet.

If you think about what that means to artists from Kyiv, just embarking on a strenuous UK and Ireland tour that runs to April, and singing their hearts out night after night to entertain us, it seems churlish to make any criticisms of the enterprise.

Ellen Kent, great impresario and entrepreneur that she is, has done them a service by enabling them to be here at all, and her straightforward, showy productions continue to appeal to audiences all over the country.

The production itself is little changed: a single set full of flowering plants and shrubs, brightly lit and with interesting details and colourful costumes, and a stage filled with extras to eke out the numbers in the chorus. You can’t fail to follow the story (surtitles translate the Italian), and characterisations are clear and unambiguous.

Elena Dee, the Korean who has sung Cio-Cio-San so often before and brings to the role the guileless innocence and inner steel it needs, did so again, while the other characters, one-dimensional portrayals though they may be (two of the “Americans” even getting panto-style boos at the close), fell into place alongside her. Natalia Matveeva (Suzuki) is a mezzo who can act and mime as well as sing sensitively, and Olexandr Forkushak (Sharpless, the US consul) has a decent baritone timbre and came over as a real human being.

Vasyl Vasylenko conducted a modest orchestral ensemble and got some effective results, avoiding excess in the Act 1 love duet and producing a well balanced and tuned Humming Chorus.

Vitalii Liskovetskyi acted a thoroughgoing cad as the exploitative, unfaithful Lieutenant Pinkerton (when you see from the surtitles that Cio-Cio San is only 15 years old when he marries her, you realise he’s a child abuser, too) and got the most vigorous of those boos for it. That wasn’t for his singing, though. I see from the programme book that I’ve previously hailed him as “one of the best singers of the role I’ve heard” – well, that was qualified by “in these (i.e. Ellen Kent’s) productions” and was about a different role, in another opera, eight years ago.

Tonight the company performs Aida.

Further performances in Sheffield, York, Hull, Edinburgh, Sunderland, Blackpool, Bradford, Carlisle, Glasgow, Stoke-on-Trent and other venues.

More info and tickets here


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