REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North in La Rondine, on tour until Nov 17

Galina Averina (third from left) as Magda and Elgan Llŷr Thomas (seated right) as Prunier in Opera North’s La Rondine. Picture: Tristram Kenton

IN a time of financial stringency, you would not automatically think of one of Puccini’s least-popular operas as compelling box office.

Unless of course you were willing to take the risks that Opera North has become famous for and could find a way to fit it into your Green Season, redeploying old sets and costumes and considering how to save the planet while also saving money.

Nor would La Rondine (The Swallow) spring easily to most minds as a parting gesture: it marks general director Richard Mantle’s farewell to the company he joined in 1994, the very year that Opera North staged its first production of the work (which also happens to be one of his ‘Top Ten’ operas). Nothing ventured, nothing gained has surely been Mantle’s motto – and it has worked out admirably.

Thus James Hurley’s new production has a dual task: first to convince that La Rondine needs to be seen in Leeds again and, if so, that it deserves to supplant Francesca Zambello’s successful 1994 effort, which enjoyed two revivals.

Leslie Travers’s set makes use of two multi-purpose steel fabrications on wheels, stretching over two storeys. Kept close together they serve to outline Magda’s salon; they are opened up to accommodate the festivities chez Bullier, with a gigantic vase of flowers between. The remaining atmosphere is left to the canny lighting of Paule Constable and Ben Pickersgill, notably in Act 3, where you can almost smell the Mediterranean beneath the blue sky.

Three of the five principals are making their company debuts, which adds to the fun. Galina Averina is one, an enigmatic Magda singing with considerable charm that is never quite matched by her appearance.

While one accepts that she needs to blend in with the crowd at Bullier’s, her homely dress makes her stand out for the wrong reason, nor does her 1920s’ wig do her any favours. You even have to wonder what it is that so allures Ruggero: how is it that someone so attractive in her biography image can have been made to look so ordinary?

Sébastien Guèze’s Ruggero is ideal as the provincial innocent, clearly out of his depth in matters amatory, but his tenor is too often less than magnetic. It is not tight so much as lacking that extra flair which more carefree resonance might provide. Ultimately one has to ask what they really see in each other.

The contrast with the secondary lovers is stark. Claire Lees is marvellously flighty as Lisette, the perfect soubrette, thoroughly enjoying herself in her coloratura and catching the eye on her every appearance. There is no mistaking the chemistry between her and Elgan Llŷr Thomas’s gallant bounder Prunier, whose tenor carries the necessary touch of steel.

Philip Smith makes the most of his acquiescent Rambaldo, to the point where one has to feel he is surely the better bet for Magda in the long run. Opera cannot work like that, of course.

Act 2 is the superb centrepiece of the evening. Here Hurley exercises total control over the comings and goings of the chorus, each with clearly defined roles. But none oversteps the mark, so that attention is never diverted from the principals, a tricky tightrope.

Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes come into their own here, but equally effective is Lauren Poulton’s buoyant choreography, which is further enlivened by a quartet of apache dancers.

Kerem Hasan’s orchestra is consistently persuasive, especially in the slower waltzes, keeping a creamy momentum through Puccini’s insistent tempo changes. It is a delight to be able to take refuge in the pit whenever the action above is less than convincing.

Should Zambello have been recycled? It is a close shave, but the overall achievement justifies this new approach.

Review by Martin Dreyer

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.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on English Touring Opera’s La Bohème and The Golden Cockerel, York Theatre Royal

Francesca Chiejina as Mimi and Luciano Botelho as Rodolfo in English Touring Opera’s La Bohème

English Touring Opera, La Bohème, April 8; The Golden Cockerel, April 9, at York Theatre Royal

IT was good to have English Touring Opera back in town. Don’t take my word for it. The Theatre Royal had to open its upper reaches to accommodate the throngs gratefully gathered for professional opera for the first time since Covid struck.

York Opera had led the way in fine style last autumn; ETO followed suit, with a potboiler and an exotic rarity.

Puccini’s La Bohème inevitably relies for its success on the lovers at its heart. The company had cast its net wide before settling on Brazilian tenor Luciano Botelho for the lovelorn Bohemian Rodolfo, casting Nigerian-American soprano Francesca Chiejina as his Mimì.

On this occasion, both began diffidently: it was partly a reflection of the amatory sheepishness of their characters, but also a result of under-projection. Botelho’s tenor disappeared into his head the higher up the range he went, while Chiejina took a while to release the tension in her jaw, which diminished her projection. She left the difficult final note of Act 1 far too early, a sure sign of lacking confidence.

Thereafter both improved and their Act 3 duet by the customs barrier found them much more relaxed and thus less self-conscious.

James Conway’s thoughtful production, revived here by Christopher Moon-Little, was based around deliberately simplistic designs by Florence de Maré (revived by Neil Irish). A large reflective glass panel leaned in on the bohemians’ attic, with the regulation stove in one corner and unusual seating provided by the basket of a hot-air balloon whose sandbags were cushions. Set on tea-chests, these became pillows for Mimì’s deathbed.

These bourgeois boys were well-clothed, affirmation that they would be returning to provincial ways once their salad days were done. In this way, set and production were complementary.

Michel de Souza’s warm baritone made a sympathetic Marcello, who was never going to be fooled by the glamour of Jenny Stafford’s Musetta; she in turn was more hard-edged than flirtatious.

Trevor Eliot Bowes’ pensive Colline and Themba Mvula’s lively Schaunard rounded out the well-balanced bohemians. Chorus members filled the cameo roles very competently and children from the York Music Hub Choir sang pleasingly – rather than the usual shouting – as Parpignol’s acolytes (he was ‘Pa’Guignol’, a Punch-and-Judy man).

Iwan Davies – not the main conductor for the run – stood in with distinction, his clear beat shaping accompaniment that always put the singers’ needs first. His orchestra responded with keen rhythms.

The chorus was in good heart at Café Momus, maintaining discipline amongst the hi-jinks. Despite the lack of outstanding soloists, this was a good, solid Bohème, well worth catching at Gala Theatre, Durham, on May 9 if you missed it this time in York.

Paula Sides as the exotic Queen of Shemakha in English Touring Opera’s The Golden Cockerel

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the all-time great orchestrators and The Golden Cockerel, his last opera and the only one staged regularly outside Russia, offers plenty of evidence of this. Touring has made a reduced adaptation necessary, which Iain Farrington has handily provided.

It lacked some of the exoticism that a larger orchestra might have offered but kept the vital woodwinds very busy and retained enough glockenspiel glitter for the astrologer’s motif. Gerry Cornelius conducted it lovingly while keeping a good balance between stage and pit.

James Conway’s new production was well-timed. The fairy-tale libretto, based on a Pushkin poem, was sung here in a neatly rhyming translation by Antal Dorati and James Gibson. It tells of half-witted King Dodon’s fear that his country is about to be invaded.

When the work was selected it can hardly have crossed the company’s mind that a terrible real-life sequel would actually ensue. The analogy cannot be pushed too hard, but the exotic Queen of Shemakha – ‘Mother Russia’ it was suggested to me in the interval – does all she can to seduce Dodon and his court, opposed only by the ineffectual General Polkan.

The Astrologer who frames the action reveals at its close that only he and the Queen are real characters, “all the rest were dream, delusion…”. In fact, the opera is better seen as parodying naive techniques in Russian opera and to that extent anticipates Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Conway did well to stick to the score and not introduce an excess of up-to-date connotations, other than dressing the royal housekeeper Amelka and three of her minions in military khaki. In the designs by Neil Irish, the general wore a Kaiser-style helmet, which implied a pre-First World War setting. The cockerel of the title was mainly perched on a look-out tower, so as to warn of impending invasion. She was appealingly drawn by the nimble Alys Mererid Roberts.

Grant Doyle gave an amusingly doddery Dodon, struggling to hold on to power, with his sons – who accidentally bump each other off in battle – portrayed as Tweedledum and Tweedledee by Thomas Elwin and Jerome Knox.

Amy J Payne was a regular martinet as Amelka, Edward Hawkins made a nicely bumbling Polkan, and Robert Lewis coped valiantly with the ultra-high tenor role of Astrologer, more than faintly reminiscent of Rasputin.

That left the bulk of the serious singing, in Acts 2 and 3, to Paula Sides as the Queen. Her coloratura, deliberately parodistic, hit the spot, and her somewhat shrill tone suited the orientalism of Rimsky’s score.

It was just as well we had English side-titles, as diction was generally less than ideal. The chorus played a full part in keeping the comedy vital, crawling out from under the curtain for their finale.

It has been 37 years since this work was given in Yorkshire, by Opera North, so unless you are young you may want to head to Durham on May 10.                                         

Review by Martin Dreyer

English Touring Opera to perform Puccini’s La Boheme and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel at York Theatre Royal

Tragic love story: English Touring Opera in La Boheme

ENGLISH Touring Opera’s residency at York Theatre Royal this week is underway.

Last night, ETO artistic director James Conway combined professional soloists and baroque specialists The Old Street Band with singers from York choirs in an inspiring staging of St John Passion that highlighted the sharp storytelling and intense vision of hope in Bach’s oratorio.

Among the choirs taking art was the York Theatre Royal Choir, singing on home turf in the 7.30pm performance.

Tomorrow (8/4/2022), ETO presents La Bohème, Giacomo Puccini’s opera about a poet who falls in love with a consumptive seamstress. In a story of young love that starts on a festive, snowy Christmas Eve night in a Parisian garret, the lovers draw close but poverty forces them apart. 

Conway describes this cultural touchstone throughout the world as “a poignant memory in music of love and loss – like a shard of mirror in which one sees one’s youth”.

ETO’s return to York Theatre Royal concludes with a lively new production of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s comic Russian fantasy The Golden Cockerel on Saturday.

Paula Sides’s Queen of Shemakha in English Touring Opera’s The Golden Cockerel

This send-up of corruption and sloth in government holds up a mirror to the last days of the Romanovs. “Despite its political edge, which meant it fell foul of the Tsarist censors, the music is daringly sensual and erotic at points,” says Conway of the first Rimsky-Korsakov work to be produced and toured by ETO. “For many, it’s an undiscovered joy of an opera.”

“Fantasy, mischief and musical delight combine in the composer’s final and favourite opera, based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin. The score is bursting with the exotic orchestrations that made Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Scheherezade so popular.”

ETO’s new music director, Gerry Cornelius, conducts Conway’s production, starring baritone Grant Doyle (last with ETO for Verdi’s Macbeth in 2019) as the indolent Emperor Dodon and soprano Paula Sides as the seductive Queen of Shemakha.

In the cast too are Edward Hawkins, Amy J Payne, Robert Lewis, Luci Briginshaw and Alys Mererid Roberts in the title role.

Tickets for the 7.30pm performances are on sale on 01904 623568 or at

Martin Dreyer will be reviewing all three performances for CharlesHutchPress.

Bohemian Paris, snow machines and a dog combine in Ellen Kent’s La Bohème

Ellen Kent’s production of La Boheme: lighting up the Grand Opera House, York, on March 20

OPERA producer and director Ellen Kent returns to the Grand Opera House, York, with a brace of Puccini productions next week.

Under the Opera International umbrella, she presents La Bohème on March 20 and Madama Butterfly the following night, with sopranos Elena Dee, from Korea, and Alyona Kistenyova, from Odessa National Opera, billed for the 7.30pm performances, subject to cast changes.

Ukrainian tenor and former military pilot Vitalii Liskovetskyi, from the Kiev National Opera, will be reprising his role as Rodolfo in La Bohème; Spanish tenor Giorgio Meladze, who sang with José Carreras in 2014, plays Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly; Moldovan baritone Iurie Gisca will be singing Marcello in La Bohème.

Soprano Marina Tonina takes the role of Musetta in La Bohème and both productions will feature a full chorus, orchestra and sumptuous sets and be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Set in the backstreets and attics of bohemian Paris, La Bohème tells the tragic tale of the doomed romance of consumptive seamstress Mimi and penniless Rodolfo.

Madama Butterfly’s heat-breaking story of the beautiful young Japanese girl who falls in love with an American naval lieutenant, with entirely predictable consequences in the world of opera, will be staged with a Japanese garden and antique wedding kiminos.

Tickets are on sale on 0844 871 3024 or at

Look out for the dog in Ellen Kent’s La Boheme next week

Here, Ellen Kent answers questions on her 2020 production of Puccini’s opera of love and loss, La Bohème, a touring show inspired by Ellen reading George Orwell’s Down And Out In Paris.

What can the Grand Opera House audience expect from your production, Ellen?

I like to provide shows at a very high level and I like large productions, so the feel is very much of a big show.

I try to put everything into it, from the sets to the artists on the stage, and I like to add things. For example, with La Bohème, I have these fabulous visuals. I’m a very visual director and producer, so I give audiences the whole package.

The overall experience is of something that is very beautiful, with gorgeous and spectacular sets. The curtain goes up and, depending on the opera of course, I want the audience to feel the ‘Wow’ factor. The sets have got to be beautiful and I like to wrap something visually stunning around the plot.”

How are you staging La Bohème?

It’s set in the French Impressionist period, so my sets reflect that. For instance, I’ve gone for a beautiful Chagall and Renoir feel and it’s quite stunning. You get this beautiful French Impressionist flavour and everything is done to serve that, so when you look at it, it’s a bit like an Impressionist painting.

I like to dress my sets, so in La Bohème, for instance, Act One is set in an attic and it’s got all these wonderful rooftops, as if they’ve been painted by one of the great French artists.

Then I like to add something more realistic, so you have this sort of Impressionist painting but we’ve also got windows lit up and we have smoke coming out of a few of the chimneys.

I’ve got a human skeleton – though not a real one of course – which I’ve dressed with a hat and a scarf. We also have a dog on stage; a brass band; snow machines; a carnival effect; the cafe with waiters running around, a market stall.

“I want the audience to feel the ‘Wow’ factor ,” says opera producer and director Ellen Kent

The whole thing is a visual feast and I always like to draw on the period an opera is set in. I do have an Eiffel Tower, which of course was built later, but that’s a bit of poetic licence.” 

Why is La Bohème so beloved?

With [Jonathan Larson’s American musical] Rent basing itself on La Bohème, for example, people use Puccini’s operas as benchmarks to build modern musicals on, which shows how strong the stories and themes in his operas are.

The music is beloved because it’s so great and La Bohème is my personal favourite because you have this poignant story wrapped around this fabulous music. There’s something rather special about Puccini’s scores and the stories that go with them are very well constructed. Some of what the characters sing is heart-rending, and people love tragedy.

La Bohème is a very sad little story and it’s got Puccini’s wonderful music and moments of great poignancy. There’s something about the violins that brings up those goosebumps and goes straight to your soul.

“It also has a lot of comedy, which I like to bring out. Opera should be giving you the whole deal – wonderful music, gripping storylines – and these two really deliver.” 

How does La Bohème fit into the timeline of Puccini’s work?

Like Verdi, he started off with these great Biblical-style operas, such as Turandot, for instance. They’re big storylines, not necessarily personal dramas. Then everything changed around the 1830s, when realism and domestic storylines became fashionable.

“Puccini jumped on to the bandwagon. La Bohème is about a domestic tragedy and it is complete realism. It’s about very poor people living in the deprived parts of Paris: these artisans and poets starving in garrets and living in mindless poverty.” 

Has Rent opened up La Bohème to new audiences?

“Yes. I tend to take a musical theatre approach to operas, with lavish visuals, and I get a lot of people coming to the shows who haven’t been to an opera before but they’ve seen big musicals like Miss Saigon or Rent. I firmly believe in opening up opera to the masses.” 

Your production will be sung in Italian with surtitles, rather than in English. Does that reflect the purist in you?

I can’t stand operas in English! I am a purist in that regard; you start putting them into English and the whole sound changes. Puccini wrote with Italian vowels, and when you’re singing, you need that Italian in the voice, instead of clipped British intonations. “And, of course, surtitles open opera up to the masses and they’re much better than just having a synopsis in the programme.

We do that too, but the actual words used are poetic and moving. The librettos are extremely good pieces of writing and you get all this emotion coming out of the words, matched by the emotion coming out of the music. You put those two together and the audience gets a much better experience.” 

” I can’t stand operas in English!” says Ellen Kent. “I am a purist in that regard; you start putting them into English and the whole sound changes “

What first sparked your love of opera?

I was born in India to a colonial father and my mother was known as the queen of amateur operatics in Bombay. My mother loved producing and putting on shows – and they were really good, actually.

She managed to put me into every single opera from about the age of four. I’d be dressed in these wonderful costumes and I loved it. Then we moved to Spain and we’d go see all the – rather bad – travelling operas.

That said, from the age of six, I declared I wanted to be a film star. Eventually, after my father had retired, I enrolled at Durham University to do a degree in Classics to appease him because he insisted ‘You’ve got to have some academic education’.

“I don’t regret doing that degree now because it’s given me a wonderful background for all the operas I’m doing. After I finished my degree, I went to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, trained as an actress, singer and dancer, because although I got a place at the Royal Academy of Music to go be an opera singer, I decided it was too narrow a field.” 

What happened after you left theatre school?

I went on to acting and musicals and was putting on European children’s theatre when Rochester City Council, who were among the people funding me, asked me to put on a children’s show in Rochester Castle gardens.

I don’t know where these notions come from, but I found myself saying, ‘I don’t think that’s really suitable but opera might work’. So, that’s how it all started, with an outdoor production of Nabuccoin 1992 to 7,000 people.

I remember the sun sinking over the River Medway with all these people having picnics. We had champagne tents, candelabras, the whole works, and I thought, ‘this is what I want to do. It’s fantastic. I’m going to do opera’. Since then, it’s been a series of wonderful adventures.” 

Why is it important to take opera to regional theatres?

“I’m quite an instinctive person so, although I never really thought it through, I just knew audiences in the regions would be hungry for opera. And why go to London when you have these wonderful sites – these outdoor arenas and lovely big theatres – all around the country?

“I felt that half the population didn’t know how wonderful these works were and I’ve never changed my concept of it. The regions are where these shows need to be.”