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June 8, 2011 4:59 pm

Kullervo, Frankfurt Opera

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In the dark, a deep bass note pulses into the auditorium from the depths of the orchestra pit. This is an opera based on Nordic sagas. Fratricide, incest, revenge and buckets of blood – no, it’s not the beginning of another Ring cycle.

The deep note does not blossom into a warm uprush of melody. Instead, it is shattered by violent timpani strokes. If Aulis Sallinen’s Kullervo (1992) gives the occasional nod to Wagner, it’s only a fair exchange for all that the older composer borrowed from northern myths. This is the Frankfurt premiere of Sallinen’s brooding epic, sung in German and grimly staged by Christof Nel.

Though Sallinen makes liberal use of tunes, descriptive effects and historical references, these three and a quarter hours are anything but easy listening.

Kullervo tells a part of the Finnish epic the Kalevala, concentrating on the arson and bloodletting around the life of its eponymous hero. There is little light in this relentlessly violent tale, and Nel emphasises the gloom, setting the action in a half-vandalised provincial interior some time in the recent past. The chorus is ever-present, a lowering community that watches, judges, abets, but never cares or helps.

It is domestic hell, as Sallinen’s text, drawn from Aleksis Kivi’s play, keeps reminding us. Nel’s staging is heavy-handed, overemphasising the neurosis of his ruined protagonists; less could have been more. Still, he is elegant and imaginative, playing the dream scenes well.

Ashley Holland makes a robust, well-judged Kullervo, Peter Marsh sings with poignant precision as his friend Kimmo, while Heidi Brunner is wonderfully complex and moving as the hero’s faithful mother. Hans Drewanz conducts a solid cast, a chorus that gets better as the evening goes on, and a dutiful orchestra.

There are jollier ways to spend an evening, but the Frankfurt Opera’s Kullervo is a scrupulous and forceful account of a major Finnish work. 

 

Oper Frankfurt

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