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Summer Opera: Sallinen's The Horseman

Olavinlinna Castle, site of the Savonlinna Opera FestivalYou know, for someone who has never actually been to Finland, I am quite a Finnophile (Finlandia at Ionarts on May 25, February 2, and August 20, 2004). I figure that it is only a matter of time before one or two of the new Finnish operas gets to a place where I have a chance to see it. Until then, however, I harbor dreams of going one day to the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland. This year's festival, as I mentioned in Opera in the Summer 2005, features a production of Aulis Sallinen's opera Ratsumies (The Horseman), from 1975, which opened on July 8. (Only one performance remains, on July 27.) George Loomis, lucky bastard, was in Savonlinna (A grim, uneven tale at Savonlinna festival, July 12) for the International Herald Tribune:

There can't be many opera companies that put on an opera having an act set in its own theater, but the Savonlinna Opera Festival performs in no conventional opera house. Its venue is Olavinlinna Castle, a 15th-century fortress built to give Sweden control over the lake district of what is now Finland in their ongoing struggle with Russia. Today the region is an idyll of marine serenity, but times were tough back then, if Aulis Sallinen's opera "The Horseman," written to celebrate the castle's 500th anniversary 30 years ago, is any indication. As seen in the festival's new production, it's a grim tale of political and personal oppression, from which desperate and ultimately futile acts of violence offer the only escape. Certainly the legal system is no help. The opera's second act consists of a courtroom scene in the castle itself involving three unrelated persons, each linked to a mysterious horseman: all three are sent to prison, along with the horseman.

"The Horseman" is the first of Sallinen's six operas and is widely credited for helping to precipitate a wave of Finnish operas in a unique burst of operatic activity for a small country. Savonlinna is right to revive those deserving of iconic status, and Sallinen's are a good place to start. Already a seasoned composer, his operas have had success internationally; one, "Kullervo," premiered in Los Angeles. And his admirably straightforward "King Lear" does not seem intimidated by its hoary source. It's understandable that the shadowy "Horseman" exerts a pull on an audience. The primitivism of Paavo Haavikko's libretto is charged with sex and violence. And the opera's arresting mix of modernistic and neo-Romantic elements makes for musical richness. But "The Horseman" has the cumbersome dramaturgy one associates with first operas. Each of its three acts culminates in an act of violence, but the scenes are not always skillfully prepared — especially the first, when Antti binds the merchant couple that enslaved him and his wife Anna and sets them on fire. The music, too, in this act is often fragmentary and lacking in direction. Better is Act III, in which Sallinen vividly portrays the unruly crowd that drafts a skeptical Antti to lead them in a vain attack on a royal manor. But the courtroom act is best, as plot strands interestingly come together.
You can read the whole thing here. Loomis adds that a new Finnish opera by Olli Kortekangas is planned for the summer of 2007, just in time for my visit to Finland. Another article by Galina Stolyarova (The singing festival, July 22) for the St. Petersburg Times (Google-cached here if that link doesn't work) does not have much on the Sallinen opera but is an interesting read for information on the festival's history, from a Russian perspective.
Finland's Savonlinna Opera Festival, one of the oldest in Europe, running until Aug. 7, opened earlier this month with an opera set in the ancient Russian capital Veliky Novgorod, 300 kilometers south of St. Petersburg. "Set in a land of forests, the opera tells about complicated human relationships and confrontations between people and regimes, from slavery right up to the league of free nations dwelling in the forest," said librettist Paavo Haavikko of the opera, "The Horseman," which he created with composer Aulis Sallinen. "Dream and reality, historical truth and fictitious events interweave in music, poetry and emotion." The tale takes place 500 years ago and begins in the house of a Novgorod merchant, where horseman Antti and his wife Anne are serving their master. The story begins with a peculiar twist: Anne spends a night with the master, while the master's wife humiliates Antti by sending him to go round the city looking for a maiden, dressed as a bear.
To get Finnish opera in the United States, we are going to have to do what they do every year at Savonlinna, that is, host a guest opera company "which brings over both their national operas and works from the classical operatic repertoire." The Mariinsky Theater, the Latvian National Opera, and this year the Gran Teatre de Liceu (from Barcelona) have all been invited. The Catalunyan troupe this year presents zarzuelas and Donizetti.

Finnish-Canadian artist Marja-Leena Rathje responds to this post at her blog. Meeting Marja-Leena at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in 2007? It sounds like yet another excellent reason for Ionarts to go to Finland.

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