Kharkhiv Opera’s Madama Butterfly Rings True

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Ukrainian National Opera of Kharkiv / Gheorghe Stanciu (conductor), Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 19.3.2012

Cio-Cio-San: Elena Dee
Lieutenant Pinkerton:  Andriy Perfilov
Sharpless: Vladimir Dragos
Suzuki: Viktoriia Zhytkova
Goro: Sergiy Ledenov
The Bonze: Andriy Kalyuzhniy
Prince Yamadori: Volodymyr Kozlov

Chorus Master: Victor Donos
Director: Ellen Kent
Designer: Nadezhda Shvets

The formidable impresario Ellen Kent has been involved in opera and ballet for two decades or so bringing opera companies, mainly from Eastern Europe, to tour extensively all over the British Isles. Two or three years ago when attending a stunning performance of Turandot by Chusinau Opera, I learned that she was planning to retire from the complex business of managing tours and was searching for an organisation prepared to carry on her good work. I prayed fervently that this would happen, and it seems my prayers were answered: Derek Block and Blackburn International stepped forward. However, Ellen herself is continuing to produce and direct – at least, for two years.

Last October the organisation brought over the Ukrainian National Opera of Kharkiv to tour La Traviata and Madama Butterfly. A production of La Boheme joined these two operas for the company’s spring tour which finishes in Oxford at the beginning of May. (Details of the places to be visited are given at the end of this review). Incidentally, if you don’t know where Khardiv is, ask any football fan; this city is hosting the European football championships next year.

This production of Madama Butterfly demonstrates that Ellen Kent has not lost her touch: the production values are high and the cast are sumptuously dressed. The title role is sung by Elena Dee, a young Korean singer she discovered, who is absolutely tailor-made for the role. Her graceful gestures, demure demeanour and Oriental looks are combined with an appreciation of Butterfly’s predicament. She lives and breathes the part and is able to engage our sympathy and respect.  As if this were not enough, she has a wonderful voice which expresses so meaningfully the joy and sorrow she experiences as a young girl utterly loyal to her American husband and so confident that he will return one fine day – which makes the final outcome so devastating.

Many of the principals are young – or look it. Vladimir Dragos, by contrast, has been treading the boards since the seventies, and was perfect in the role of the avuncular and worldly-wise US Consul, who has the unhappy task of breaking the news of Lieutenant Pinkerton’s betrayal . Andriy Perfilov was a very dashing Pinkerton, but seemed just too nice a chap to let a girl down. He gave the impression that, far from being a cad, he was just as naïve as Butterfly and  a victim of social pressures at home, but I may have been taken in by his splendid tenor voice.  The rest of the audience disagreed and signified their disapproval of his behaviour at the final curtain call.

Having an Asian in the lead role meant that the Europeans in Japanese roles were less convincing both in looks and manner. However Viktoriia Zhytkova could not be faulted in the role of Suzuki, Butterfly’s companion and confidante, and had a lovely mellow voice. Sergiy Ledenov as Goro, the marriage broker, was shiftiness and obsequiousness personified; an utterly disreputable piece of work, yet the audience didn’t boo him! Andriy Kalyuzhniy as the the Bonze was a monster, but I was rather taken with the handsome Volodymyr Kozlov as Prince Yamadori who appeared genuinely infatuated with Cio-Cio-San. I would be failing in my duty if I did not mention the young and gifted Yegor Korshunov who played the non-singing part of  Butterfly’s son with great charm and showed up Butterfly’s maternal tenderness.

This production worked well because it had an aura of authenticity about it. The set designed by Nadezhda Shvets offered a slightly shabby looking Japanese house surrounded by trees, shrubs and flowers which looked almost real. The ensemble work was good with excellent rapport between the members of the company; I suppose this results from doing a strenuous tour together. But the important thing about Puccini is the music and I was impressed  not only by the fine singing but by the inspired playing of the orchestra under conductor Georghiu Stanciu, notably in the orchestral interlude which precedes the dawn of the final act.

If Kharkiv Opera’s other productions reach this standard, then Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Tunbridge Wells have a treat in store.

Roger Jones

The Ukrainian National Opera of Kharkiv will be performing in the following places on their tour.
La Traviata
: April – Cork, Belfast, Aberdeen, Northampton, Cambridge, Dunstable, Guildford; May – Oxford.
La Boheme
: April – Cork, Dublin, Aberdeen. Llandudno, Reading; May – Tunbridge Wells.
Madama Butterfly
: April – Limerick, Dublin, Aberdeen, Dundee, Llandudno, Northampton, High Wycombe, Cambridge, Dunstable; May – Tunbridge Wells, Oxford.