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Thanks to contemporary composers such as Kaija Saarijao, Einojuani Rautaavara and Aulis Sallinen, Finland’s per capita contribution to the continued vitality of opera is second to none. But is misplaced pride behind the Finnish National Opera’s exhumation of “the first Finnish opera” – Fredrik Pacius’s The Hunt of King Charles, a rarity even in Finland? Not at all. Pacius was no amateur but a well- trained German who settled in Finland. And while his 1852 opera is a monarchy- glorifying affair written when Finland was under Russian domination, like other clever composers he knew how to stoke nationalist sentiments without rocking the political boat.
Set when Finland was under Swedish control, Zacharias Topelius’s libretto (written in Finland’s then literary language of Swedish) is rooted in a Finnish hunting trip by King Charles XI and fabricates a conspiracy against him. Works like this tend not to be cutting-edge stylistically – think of Moniuszko in Poland – and Pacius bypasses the innovations of Lohengrin by reaching back to Weber’s Der Freischütz for artistic sustenance. There is even a shooting contest, and a nocturnal meeting of conspirators aims for the mystery of the Wolf’s Glen.
Pacius, a thorough craftsman, is at his most original in depicting a Finnish market, with rival vendors hawking goods and a Finnish folk song woven in. Like Verdi’s masked ball, the setting supplies a neat foil for a conspiratorial strike against a Swedish monarch. But Charles is saved and proceeds to extol the virtues of Finland, and there follows a stirring national hymn. Still, I left the theatre humming the overture to Oberon.
Joakim Groth’s production, designed by Mark Väisänen, acknowledges the resuscitation effort with disarming frankness by setting the action in a museum, yet somehow the mix of old and new works. Tove Åman is compelling as the fisherman’s daughter Leonora, who outdoes her Beethoven counterpart by rescuing the king twice and her lover Jonathan to boot. Petri Bäckström sings Jonathan ably, not least in a lilting 6/8 number, the lingua franca of 19th-century operatic fishermen. Jan Söderblom conducts.
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