Richard Bratby

Across Britain punters are lapping up ultra-trad opera – the Arts Council will be disgusted

Plus: the CBSO are playing with blinding energy and verve for their new music director

Elena Dee as Cio-Cio-San and Natalia Matvieieva as Suzuki in Ellen Kent's production of Madama Butterfly

Another week at the opera, another evening with an elitist and ethically dubious art form. I love it; you love it; but the authors of the Arts Council’s recent report on opera in England are less enamoured. One issue they identified was that ‘the stories which opera and music theatre tells are failing to connect fully with contemporary society’. Possibly the memo never reached the promoters of Ellen Kent’s spring tour, which since January has visited 40-odd venues not typically served by major opera companies, and has done so without public subsidy. You might imagine that the only commercial outfit to make live opera pay in Wolverhampton, Ipswich and Sunderland would have featured prominently in the Arts Council’s research, but they don’t appear to have been consulted.

The tour has visited 40-odd venues not typically served by major opera companies – without public subsidy

Anyway, it’s a bit awkward because it seems the stories with which contemporary audiences in Stoke, Bradford and Southend are choosing to connect (at least, when it comes to spending their own money) are fully-staged, ultra-traditional revivals of romantic warhorses – Carmen, La traviata and Madama Butterfly. All thoroughly reprehensible, of course, and Butterfly in particular is the subject of grave concern at the subsidised companies. The Royal Opera hired cultural sensitivity consultants, like asbestos-removers, to decontaminate their ideologically-suspect Leiser-Caurier staging.

Meanwhile Ellen Kent’s version just keeps rolling along. Kent herself is credited as director, and if you’ve seen her production over the past two decades you’ll know the deal: paper-walled Japanese house, tatty backcloths and a bamboo water feature which trickles away – charmingly or maddeningly, according to taste – from first note to last. You get cherry blossom, kimonos and an adorable kiddywink playing little Sorrow. Barring some wear to the sets (it looked as if roof repairs were about to be added to Butterfly’s list of worries), very little seemed to have changed since I first saw it in 2006.

Kent typically engages cash-poor, talent-rich companies from the former Soviet bloc. This tour featured the Ukrainian Opera and Ballet Theatre Kyiv, and with it a Cio-Cio-San – Elena Dee – who wouldn’t be out of place in any international house: embodying Butterfly’s inner steel as well as her vulnerability, and pouring it all out in lustrous streams of tone (her breath-control is a thing of wonder). Giorgi Meladze, as Pinkerton, sang with just the blend of swagger and careless charm you would want from the role; Natalia Matvieieva (Suzuki) and Vitalie Cebotari (Sharpless) were models of articulation and unforced compassion.

True, there was a certain amount of park ‘n’ bark. Possibly this is an ex-Soviet thing but it seemed understood among the cast that when you sing, you turn and belt it straight at the audience regardless of the dramatic situation. Perhaps that was necessary: at Warwick the orchestral players (around 30 in total) sat on the floor in front of the stage, occasionally obscuring the action, although they sounded zesty and ardent enough under their conductor Vasyl Vasylenko.

But it was striking how many of the details of Kent’s staging survived intact, and made their full emotional impact – the silhouetted Act One love scene, the anxious glances Suzuki gave her mistress, the genuinely brutal dénouement. It might look creaky but it hits all the story beats, and makes visual and human sense. The singing does the rest. Thinking back to English Touring Opera’s borderline-incomprehensible recent Manon Lescaut, and asked to recommend a night of Puccini to an opera newbie, I wouldn’t hesitate to send them to Ellen Kent instead.

Up the road in Birmingham the CBSO launched its 24/25 season with a PR misfire: embroiling itself in a culture-war skirmish over (of all wretched non-issues) mobile phones in concerts. And yet the orchestra is playing with blinding energy and verve for their chief conductor (now promoted to music director) Kazuki Yamada. After a high-octane account of Gershwin’s An American in Paris they accompanied Jeremy Denk in ATLAS, a new piano concerto by Anna Clyne that seemed torn between Denk’s reputation for wit (étude-like asides and toytown waltzes), and an urge towards something grander. It ended with a bang and the audience sighed with pleasure at Denk’s Scott Joplin encore.

Yamada finished with Henry Wood’s gargantuan orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Hours of fun for repertoire geeks, who could compare Wood’s 1915 version (rich, dark romantic impasto) with their memories of Ravel’s more familiar 1922 arrangement (Fabergé colours meet Ballets Russes fantasy). No one seems interested in talking about the fact that like his CBSO predecessors, Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons, Yamada has now been engaged by the Berlin Philharmonic on the strength of his work in Birmingham. Something to be shouted from the rooftops, surely? But here we are, talking about iPhones instead.

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