After two years’ painstaking construction, the sets, costumes and props for Ellen Kent’s tour of La Traviata narrowly escaped destruction when civil war broke out in Ukraine last year.
With just 24 hours’ notice, the veteran director arranged for it to be transported out of the country and for the globe-trotting production to kick off in neighbouring Moldova instead.
The kit, worth well over £100,000, was bundled into two 45-foot articulated lorries and driven out of Donetsk, the epicentre of the conflict, just as the Ukrainian air force’s first bombs began falling.
Since then the opera has enjoyed rave reviews at venues across the UK — and music lovers can judge for themselves when it comes to the Henley Standard’s patch.
Performances will take place at the Hexagon in Reading on February 6, the New Theatre in Oxford on February 20 and the Wycombe Swan in High Wycombe on February 22.
It features a 70-strong company from across Europe including sopranos Alyona Kistenyova and Maria Tsonina, baritone Vladimir Dragos and tenors Ruslan Zinevych, who has sung with Pavarotti, and Giorgio Meladze, who sang with José Carreras last year.
Despite a less than promising start, Kent said she was delighted with how the tour was progressing.
She said: “We were due to start working in Donetsk and Kharkiv even though there was trouble brewing. We were aware of it but we just assumed it would all clear up.
“We then had a call from the Foreign Office who told us the airstrikes were starting in 24 hours and we should get out immediately. From there it blew up unbelievably quickly.
“Our transport company in Moldova came right across the country for us and just as we were getting out, the bombing started and fighting broke out in the streets.
“After that, we needed a safe haven so we brought the whole lot to the Moldovan National Opera and they allowed us to use their stage.
“We managed to rescue and remedy the whole thing although we had to do some renovation to the sets.
“As you can imagine, with such short notice there was quite a lot of hasty throwing as we loaded the lorries.
“However, we have been tremendously well received with great reviews everywhere we go.
“With La Traviata there’s naturally a lot of drama on the stage but in this case there’s a pretty dramatic story behind it as well.”
Kent, who lives in Canterbury, admitted the experience had been “extremely stressful” and could have turned out differently.
She said: “I’m grateful that the transport company managed such a quick turnaround otherwise there may not have been any sets or costumes — and I wouldn’t particularly like to have been killed, thank you very much!
“There weren’t bullets whizzing past our heads but we could hear explosions in the distance and we knew there could be snipers on top of buildings.
“Bandits were also stopping trucks on the roads out of the city and robbing them because there wasn’t any government and it was pretty lawless.
“Luckily that didn’t happen to us; we didn’t even know it had been going on until after we got out.
“I sometimes talk about it in a bit of a throwaway fashion but I realise we were pretty lucky to escape as a lot of people were killed.
“There is still a lot of unrest there and we certainly couldn’t go back at the moment. I can’t see the conflict being resolved any time soon, sadly.I’m very grateful for all the positive reviews because if the show had been a disaster, we would have gone through all that for nothing.
“It was a bit of an adventure but I’m one of those bloody-minded people who never gives up. I was determined that this opera was going to hit Britain — and hard.”
For times, prices and bookings, visit www.ellenkent.com or call the Hexagon on 0118 960 6060, the New Theatre on 0844 871 3020 or the Wycombe Swan on 01494 512000.