ELLEN KENT OPERA: La Boheme & Madama Butterfly

I’m going to start with words not about the two performances this week but about the company. Ellen Kent is an extraordinary woman, a driven theatre maker who has for many years now has been producing large scale productions of classic and popular opera and taking them on national tours to regional theatres and working with singers and musicians from across the globe but predominantly from Eastern Europe. Her productions are always lavish, her companies brimming with talent and her representations charmingly traditional. Why do I love them? I love them because they are un-messed with, they are set in period with no “clever” twists or re-workings, and as such they are always satisfying and, for newcomers to the art form, they are the ideal introduction. Re-workings have their place of course as do clever ideas, but not for the uninitiated maybe. That is why I will always support Ellen and her company.

Over the last two evenings I have witnessed two of her classic productions. Firstly La Boheme and then Madama Butterfly, and what better introduction to opera could there be. Puccini’s works are beautiful to listen to and the stories are of course excellent. Funnily enough, were these stories presented as TV dramas these days the broadcaster would no doubt announce before the screenings that some of the content would display discriminatory language and ideas – because they certainly do. La Boheme is a tale of coercive behaviour and Butterfly the same but with the added element of racism. Both have to be viewed knowing that when done with skill these are not attitudes and actions that should be condoned. Madame Butterfly deals with such issues better than La Boheme, Butterfly is the tragic victim of the story and the arrogance of Pinkerton and his American culture is certainly exposed. La Boheme is less easy, the characters are flawed individuals who only at the last moment realise and show remorse for the damage that has been caused by their arrogance, selfishness and sense of entitlement.

Accepting them as period pieces and looking at them in this way gives them a strong contemporary relevance, many of the issues are still evident in modern society and sadly so.

Ellen Kent Opera is a repertory company so across that repertoire they have a strong chorus of talented younger singers and a core of principals who take on many of the lead roles. On this occasion there were several stand-out performances. In La Boheme Mimi was beautifully played by Elena Dee and Olga Perrier was outstanding and sexy as Musetta. The most impressive of the male roles, in a cast of excellent men, was Olexandr Forkushak whose rich baritone voice was underpinned by great acting. And Forkushak returned in Madama Butterfly as Sharpless, the US Consul in an equally impressive display of both vocal and acting skill. Natalia Matveeva gave a moving performance as Suzuki her rich mezzo soprano once again supported by fine acting. But the highlight of the evening has to be Elena Dee and international star originally from Korea who was on top form as Cio-Cio San, a soaring and fine soprano, a touching representation of the exploited geisha and a deeply affecting display of dignity in tragedy.

Ukranian Opera and Ballet Theatre has a fine orchestra under the baton of Nicolae Dohotaru, And of course one must mention that not only is Ellen Kent the powerhouse behind this company she is also the director of these productions.

Finally, the curtain calls are capped by the orchestra and company unfurling Ukranian flags and singing with passion their national anthem, a gesture that is met with a standing ovation from two sell out audiences, not something I expect to see here for our new king!

Andrew Kay

25th and 26th April

Theatre Royal Brighton

Rating: ★★★★☆

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