Producer Ellen Kent has created a niche in the theatrical world over the last three decades, importing the best of traditional ballet and opera from Eastern Europe to be staged here in the UK. Given the ongoing war in Ukraine and subsequent political upheaval, it is a testament to her tenacity that she has managed to bring ‘The Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre’ from war torn Kyiv, on a Spring tour to the UK, beginning at Manchester’s Opera House. The small company of approximately a dozen, supplemented by local young artists and supported by a full orchestra, will be showcasing classic works by Puccini and Verdi over the next four months; Madama Butterfly, Aida and La Boheme.
Ah, ‘La Boheme’! At this point I have to confess my history with Puccini’s impossibly romantic story of doomed love amongst the garrets and poverty of nineteenth century Paris. It was the first opera I saw back in the early 1990’s when my then girlfriend (later my lovely wife), dragged a reluctant twenty something Salfordian to see Phyllida Lloyd’s seminal production for Opera North. I fell hard for this tale of struggling young artistes and have sought it out ever since in all its incarnations, whether they be a traditional staging or a modern interpretation such as Jonathan Larson’s ‘RENT’ or Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Moulin Rouge’. Therefore, the opportunity to witness a national company performing this classic work in my home city, had me in high spirits as I made my way down Quay Street to the venerable old theatre.
As I hoped, the individual vocal performances were uniformly superb; the stentorian baritones of Schaunard (Vitali Cebotari) and Marcello (Olexandr Forkushak) complimented the booming bass tones of Colline (Valeriu Cojocaru) and filled the vast auditorium, supporting the tenor of poor Rodolfo (Sorin Lupu) to great effect. Olga Perrier shone as the coquettish flirt Musetta, whilst Mimi (Alyona Kistenyova) demonstrated a soaring soprano range that was technically excellent with both ‘O soave fanciulla’ and ‘Che gelida manina’ lifted the spirits and precipitating lengthy audience appreciation.
Unfortunately, this proficiency was not replicated in the wider production. The structure of classic opera allows for short breaks after each Act, this has the effect of breaking concentration to a considerable degree and preventing a build of the necessary tension as the story reaches an emotional climax. Although this is the traditional way to present opera (and allows for scene changes), to a modern audience it feels cumbersome and adds to the feeling that one is removed from, rather than immersed in, the action on stage. The necessity of older performers portraying struggling young musicians and writers also stretched credence to breaking point, the well nourished male leads hardly looking like they were starving artistes and took away the vibrancy that is so vital to this piece. The production lacked both sleek sophistication or any attempt at modernist interpretation and was therefore solely reliant on the vocal range of the company and this was not enough to sustain it. The heat which is central to both the story of Rodolfo and Mimi and Marcello and Musetta was absent, rather like the candles in the Parisian attic setting, the passion spluttered briefly into life without ever fully catching hold.
However, regardless of any minor criticisms of the production, one could not fail to be moved when Conductor Vasyl Vaslylenko appeared onstage at the conclusion to lead the company in a rousing rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem ‘Shche ne vmerla Ukraina’ (Ukraine has not yet perished). The sight of the Ukrainian flag being defiantly waved onstage will stay with me long after memories of this production fade, and Ellen Kent needs to be loudly lauded for continuing to showcase the artistic talents of a country at war and under occupation.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 27th January 2023
North West End UK Rating: ★★★