REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Ukrainian Opera & Ballet, Kyiv, at Grand Opera House, York, February 3 and 4

Elena Dee in Ellen Kent’s production of La Bohème for Ukrainian Opera & Ballet, Kyiv

Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre, Kyiv, in La Bohème and Madama Butterfly, Grand Opera House, York, February 3 and 4

FOR nearly four decades, Ellen Kent has been bringing foreign opera and ballet companies to Britain, mainly from Eastern Europe. She has now additionally turned her hand to directing.

Under her aegis, Ukraine’s flagship company is touring the United Kingdom and Ireland between late January and early May, with Aida in repertory with the two productions here.

It would have been a marathon undertaking at the best of times. War at home makes it no easier. So it was to be expected that the company would play it safe. Still, this was a very respectable effort.

Neither of the lovers was in their best form in Act 1 of La Bohème. Korean-born Elena Dee, now resident in Italy, lacked focus as Mimì initially, but improved spectacularly until delivering some beautifully controlled tone in the final act. Her progression from naïve hesitation to love-induced dependency was nicely calculated.

The same could not be said for Vitalii Liskovetskyi’s Rodolfo. His Act 1 attacks were idle, approaching every phrase from slightly under the note and departing every high note almost before he had reached it. Nor was there much electricity in his interest in Mimì.

Ukrainian Opera & Ballet, Kyiv, in La Bohème

He must have been given a pep-talk after Act 2, because he was unrecognisable thereafter, singing with a purity of phrase that had previously eluded him. By the end he was fully engaged – but he had taken his time.

Olexandr Forkushak made a forthright Marcello, indeed he rarely sang below forte, but he cut a strong presence. The French soprano Olga Perrier was his vivacious, willowy Musetta, strutting and posing like a would-be celeb and really lighting up Act 2, although her relationship with Marcello there could have been give more emphasis. Vitalii Cebotari was a warm, confident Schaunard, with Valeriu Cojocaru a more diffident Colline.

Children from Stagecoach Theatre Arts York were brought in for Act 2, although their song was taken by the chorus ladies: a sensible use of local talent that was to be repeated around the circuit.

Kent needed to think harder about the opera’s comic moments, especially the by-play with the landlord and the Act 4 hi-jinks, which lacked sufficient spontaneity to spark real pathos when disaster struck.

Vasyl Vasylenko, the company’s permanent orchestra director, conducted with a good feel for momentum, steering well clear of sentimentality.

Ukrainian Opera & Ballet, Kyiv, in Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly was not quite on the same level. One understands that younger Ukrainians are largely engaged on military assignments, but when Pinkerton, rather than an ardent young lieutenant, is old enough to be Cio-Cio San’s father and looks as if he should be at least a commodore if not a rear admiral, disbelief is not willingly suspended.

Although we could not appreciate her interest in him, Alyona Kistenyova’s Cio-Cio San was appealingly innocent, only introducing steel into her tone when realising that she had been betrayed. Even more engaging was Natalia Matveeva’s sharply observed and keenly attentive Suzuki.

Sorin Lupu’s days as Pinkerton must surely be numbered, given that his tenor showed signs of fraying at the edges. Olexandr Forkushak was back as a determined Sharpless, moderating his dynamic levels as he had not done as Marcello. Ruslan Pacatovici was a busybody Goro and Anastasiia Blokha a striking Kate.

Vasylenko was back in the pit, but this time lacking some of the urgency he had shown in Bohème, but orchestral ensemble remained cohesive.

At the end of each opera, after the first few bows, a Ukrainian flag was unfurled and the national anthem sung, a moment of high poignancy that provoked even more resounding applause in each case.

On tour until May 8. Northern dates include Sunderland Empire (La Bohème, February 24 and Madama Butterfly, February 25), Alhambra Theatre, Bradford (La Bohème, March 16; Madama Butterfly, March 17m, and Aida,  March 18) and Sheffield City Hall (Aida, April 29). Box office:

Review by Martin Dreyer

Alyona Kistenyova: “Appealingly innocent” in her role as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly

How Ellen Kent gained permission to bring Kyiv opera company to Grand Opera House

Musetta and her dog in Ellen kent’s production of La Bohème for the Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv

INDOMITABLE impresario Ellen Kent had contemplated the unthinkable: calling time on mounting her lavish opera and ballet tours by eastern European companies under her own steam.

Now, however, not even President Putin can stop her as she heads back and forth to Ukraine to bring the Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv to Britain, not least to one of her most regular stamping grounds, the Grand Opera House in York next week.

Senbla, part of the Sony Music Entertainment stable, have taken on the financier’s role for her Opera International tours. “I put the productions on; they pay for them and pay me a fee. We’ve been doing this since 2019, and it’s a good way to end my career because it doesn’t carry any risk,” she says.

This arrangement leaves the tireless Ellen free to concentrate on directing rehearsals for the Kyiv company’s 2023 productions of Puccini’s La Boheme and Madama Butterfly and Verdi’s Aida.

Opera director Ellen Kent

What’s more, she has had to make all the arrangements for securing visas and permissions for the Ukrainian orchestra, chorus, soloists and technical and stage crew – 73 people in total – for their British itinerary that opens tonight (26/1/2023) in Manchester.

“The older I get, the more I seem to do,” says artistic director Ellen. “My first opera with the Romanian National Opera was in 1993, and I know this is crazy, but I don’t look any older.”

She is 73, and her diligent, devoted work in being the first producer to bring big-scale opera tours from Eastern Europe to British theatres has seen her come face to face with three conflicts in Ukraine since starting with the Ukrainian National Opera in Odesa in 2002: the Orange Revolution protests of 2004-2005, Donbas under attack in 2014 and now Putin’s “special military operation”.

“This is the most difficult tour I’ve done in my whole life,” says Ellen, who may no longer face financial risks in her work but nevertheless had to fly to war-ravaged Ukraine in November to oversee all the preparations for the tour.

Natalia Matveeva: Ukrainian mezzo-soprano performing in Madama Butterfly

“Ok, there are bombs and drones, but somehow everyone carries on as normal. For this tour, I’ve had to bring them out of Kyiv three times, first to get their visas done for the British Home Office, taking them from Ukraine to Moldova, then getting them on to overnight coaches for rehearsals in Chişinău, putting them in hotels, and calling on my relationship with the Opera Ballet Theatre of Moldova. Now the tour itself.”

Ellen’s administration for this 2023 itinerary has been double that required for any previous travels. “I’ve almost had a nervous breakdown, not from bombs, but from all the bureaucracy, as all men aged 18 to 60 are not allowed out of Ukraine, should they be enlisted, and so you have to get special permission for arts organisations from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, who have to send the permissions to individual mobile phones.

“They sent them about two days before, and then you have Kyiv being bombed, and all the telecommunications go down, having booked them on the night train from Kyiv to Chisinau.”

Further problems ensued with Ukraine-Moldova border guards, whose computers came up blank for the QR codes for their electronic passes when they were travelling for rehearsals in Chisinau. “The whole lot of them had to stay overnight at a petrol station that happened to have a café. Then I got a call at six in the morning to say the border guards said ‘come again’, as the connections had been fixed.”

Alyona Kistenyova: Ukrainian soprano singing in La Bohème

For the tour dates, Ellen made arrangements for the company to travel by coach from Kyiv to Krakow, still waiting for their electronic pass permissions for their British stay at the time of this interview (January 19), but with time in hand for any hiccoughs ahead of the flight from Poland to Manchester, due to arrive on January 25.

“Putting the war to one side, I’ve always felt very connected to Ukraine because the quality of their operatic work in Odesa, Kharkiv and Kyiv is so high. What I was not prepared to do was just walk away. I love opera, I love working in eastern Europe; it’s exciting.

“I’ve had a ball, I’ve had a good life, and I will not walk away because they must preserve the culture in Ukraine that Putin wants to destroy – and he’s already bombed the Kharkiv company out of functioning,” she says.

“My feeling now is that I want to protect their art and what I’m doing is helping to keep it alive. God help us all if Putin were to take that country over.”

Ellen is already making plans for Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv to tour Britain in 2024: “Carmen, definitely Madama Butterfly again,” she says. “And, the third opera…that’s an interesting question. Wait and see!”

A scene from Ellen Kent’s production of Madama Butterfly

UKRAINIAN Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv perform Puccini’s La Bohème on February 3 and Madama Butterfly on February 4, at the Grand Opera House, York, at 7.30pm.

Ukrainian soprano Alyona Kistenyova, Korean soprano Elena Dee and French soprano Olga Perrier are the tour soloists for La Bohème, Puccini’s romantic but tragic operatic tale of the doomed, consumptive Mimi and her love for a penniless writer, staged with bohemian art, a brass band and snow effects.

Dee, Kistenyova and Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Natalia Matveeva return in Kent’s staging of Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s heart-breaking story of the beautiful young Japanese girl who falls in love with an American naval lieutenant. A Japanese garden and antique wedding kimonos are promised. Box office:

Copyright of The Press, York

Ellen Kent directs Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv in La Bohème and Madama Butterfly at Grand Opera House in February

The Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv’s La Bohème

THE Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv will perform Puccini’s La Bohème on February 3 and Madama Butterfly the following night at the Grand Opera House, York.

Senbla presents these Ellen Kent touring productions for Opera International with a traditional style of staging, beautiful sets and costumes, international soloists, chorus and full orchestra.

Ukrainian soprano Alyona Kistenyova, Korean soprano Elena Dee and French soprano Olga Perrier are the tour soloists for La Bohème, Puccini’s romantic but tragic operatic tale of the doomed, consumptive Mimi and her love for a penniless writer.

The Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv’s Madama Butterfly

Bohemian art, a brass band, snow effects and Muzetta’s dog will feature in the tale of Parisian love and loss, noted for such arias as Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen, They Call Me Mimi and Muzetta’s Waltz, sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Dee, Kistenyova and Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Natalia Matveeva return in Kent’s Madama Butterfly, winner of the Best Opera Awards in the Liverpool Daily Post Theatre Awards.

Madama Butterfly’s heart-breaking story of the beautiful young Japanese girl who falls in love with an American naval lieutenant will be staged with exquisite sets, including a Japanese garden, and costumes topped off by antique wedding kimonos from Japan. Among the highlights will be Humming Chorus, One Fine Day and Love Duet.

Both 7.30pm performances will be sung in Italian with English surtitles. Tickets are on sale at or on 0844 871 7615.