Kullervo, Savonlinna Opera Festival, Finland – review

Aulis Sallinen’s dark, lush score resonates in the main hall of Olavinlinna Castle as though the space had been built with 20th-century opera in mind. It was not. Back in 1475, Olavinlinna was built with war in mind. It was hard to get into, looked formidable and made an impact. These things have not changed. Today, though, it is not boiling oil or flaming arrows that Olavinlinna emanates. It is music. And if you think that is harmless, perhaps it is time you made the pilgrimage to eastern Finland for Kullervo.

Sold as a herd boy to a smith, Kullervo watches as wolves slaughter his master’s cattle. And that is only the beginning: next he butchers the smith’s wife, as punishment for the stone she baked into his bread. Fratricide, incest and arson form a few of the landmarks in this harrowing Finnish epic. Sallinen’s opera narrates just a selection of events from the national saga The Kalevala, but there is not much cheer in his choice.

That might explain why it has taken more than two decades since its premiere for Kullervo to return to the Finnish stage. But no. The opera’s international success, with some eight productions around the world, proves that its gloom does not detract from its appeal. Perhaps Kullervo’s comparative neglect at home is merely the price of a thriving national musical culture. Finland, with a total population two-thirds the size of London’s, boasts 29 full-time professional music ensembles and one of the world’s best music education systems. More often than not, Savonlinna’s programme includes a world premiere; maybe Finland has simply been too busy turning out great new operas to find time to tend the older ones.

In any case, this particular return is a welcome one. Kullervo’s brutal score draws echoes of a blood-soaked past from the stones of Olavinlinna, and makes for an imposing summer evening on the lake. That Savonlinna can assemble such impressive musical forces is a tribute both to the status of the festival within the country and to the solidity of Finnish musical life.

In the title role, Tommi Hakala casts much of his character’s violence inwards. His is a reflective, tormented hero, sweet and rich of voice, in a portrayal full of subtlety and nuance. In lighter shades, with a honeyed melancholy perfect for the role, Ville Rusanen sings the hero’s childhood friend Kimmo. Tuija Knihtilä makes the unconditional warmth of parental love audible as Kullervo’s mother, Jenny Carlstedt is smouldering as the smith’s short-lived wife. All the smaller roles are finely sung.

As with Bayreuth, the Savonlinna orchestra is entrenched as the summer habit of musicians from the country’s top orchestras, and has all the cohesion and heft of a full-time ensemble. The chorus, too, punches well above its weight. Hannu Lintu, currently chief conductor of Finland’s radio symphony orchestra, keeps his forces taut and drives the action forward.

This is just as well, because Kari Heiskanen’s stage direction is often ineffective and static. The Olavinlinna stage comes with many restrictions – medieval fortifications did not include side stages, fly towers, revolving floors or hydraulic lifts – but these do not stop Heiskanen from moving the chorus well or using the wide stage effectively. He stumbles, though, on character development and pacing. Within Antti Mattila’s stark sets (four skeleton houses, a picket fence), Heiskanen’s figures remain caricatures, left to repeat cartoonish quirks, given no scope for evolution. Riitta Anttonen-Palo’s ragbag baroque costumes are similarly restrictive. As a result the evening drags where it should hurtle.

This is a minor quibble. It is worth a little scenic tedium for the pleasure of a large-scale 20th-century Finnish classic, superbly sung and beautifully played. Add the hallucinogenic strangeness of a Finnish summer night, where darkness never really falls, and you arrive at something truly haunting.

Olavinlinna apparently meets all the requirements of the Finnish fire department. It is hard to believe during the long, slow shuffle as more than 2,000 audience members pass in and out of the castle’s stone portals. But access now is a doddle compared with the festival’s early days. When eccentric Finnish soprano Aino Acktë founded the Savonlinna opera festival 102 years ago, there was no footbridge leading to the island castle; operagoers arrived in rowboats. Today, there are even wheelchair ramps. And the festival’s new direction team is working hard to open the castle further.

Next year brings partnerships with Dresden’s Semperoper and Vienna’s Volksoper, part of a move towards a more international focus and a diversity of stylistic offerings. In Finland’s well-funded cultural landscape, the festival, which is 80 per cent self-funded, is something of a fiscal anomaly, and needs to keep a beady eye on box office takings.

Savonlinna’s opera festival almost triples the lakeside town’s population. That an event so subject to commercial pressures can stage a piece as dour as Kullervo is a mark of both successful artistic direction and of audience trust. Ultimately, the two are inseparable.


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