Classical Music: A triumph to the Finnish

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The Independent Culture
FOR MUCH of this century, Finland was, musically speaking, a one- horse town. The horse was called Sibelius: his achievements as a symphonist were so overwhelming that it wouldn't have been unreasonable for the next few generations of Finns to have turned out sub-Sibelian symphonists to order. But no. What came after Sibelius wasn't symphonies but opera, and this with a vengeance. Finland is now arguably the leading opera- generating nation in Europe. It's bizarre and unaccountable, but new opera in the land of the midnight sun is flourishing. And this culture of success is largely due to one man: Aulis Sallinen, whose operas, despite never quite finding an audience in Britain (The King Goes Forth to France at Covent Garden eight years ago was rubbished by London critics, who should have known better) add up to a catalogue of lyric theatre scores that few living composers can equal. Until last week there were four, and every one a masterpiece of dramatic pragmatism: not exactly radical - Sallinen's language is consolidating, centred on tonality - but impressive, striking, and steeped in theatre sense. At the Savonlinna Festival in Finland came the premiere of number five, The Palace. Like those before it, it hits the bullseye dead on.

The first thing to say about The Palace is that although the libretto was originally written and set in English (beautifully clean, sharp, clever English which Sallinen then translated) the result is profoundly Finnish: a piece of meaningfully sardonic whimsy whose jokes are ambivalent and born out of a pessimistic worldview. It describes the last days of a political regime, corrupt to the point of absurdity and governed by an autocrat whose power rests in a self-created cult of personality. Like an imperial Sooty, he is never heard to speak: he merely whispers to his wife, who longs to leave him for the outside world. And that's what happens at the end, when she is "liberated" by an interloper who effects a palace coup, assumes the throne, and looks like being just as grand a tyrant as the man before. It ends, in fact, like one of Peter Maxwell Davies's old musical allegories on betrayal, where the Saviour-figure throws off his cloak and proves to have been the Antichrist all along.

But The Palace is like Davies in no other respect. Its literary antecedents are Ryzard Kapuscinski's play on the fall of Haile Selassie, The Emperor, and Mozart's Die Entfuhrung (whose characters resonate in the names of Sallinen's equivalents: the king is called the Bassa, his wife Constance, and the "liberator" Valmonte, a corruption of Belmonte). Musically the score salutes the world of epic Russian social satire somewhere between Shostakovich and Mussorgsky. But that said, the texture is light, translucent even, and it crisply takes in Broadway Bernstein, a touch of John Adams- ian minimalism, and the Sondheim-esque paradox of beautiful sounds paired with grotesque stage business. The highlight of act one, for example, is a ravishing duet for Constance and Valmonte which takes place while someone is gratuitously executed. Shades of Sweeney Todd at work with his razor while singing rhapsodically of Joanna.

That you can legitimately describe anything in late-20th- century opera as "ravishing" is, of course, something in itself. The music of The Palace is unnervingly attractive: easy on the ear but seriously worked and laced with tension. It is good to hear, grateful to sing, and draws full-blooded performances from the cast. One spin- off of the Finnish opera boom is a boom in voices; there are some outstanding ones here, especially the women (Jaana Mantynen and Ritva-Liisa Korhonen) who persistently get the best music. I also liked Jorma Silvasti's crystal- clear tenor as the Pedrillo counterpart, and the brisk clarity of Okko Kamu's conducting.

What I didn't like was the production, which failed to establish the basics of the piece: that this is a decaying regime propped up by dangerous people. There was no real sense of threat; and wonderful though the setting of Savonlinna is for grand stagings of Flying Dutchman or Aida (a medieval castle housing open-air performances within a massive courtyard) it was too big for what is at heart a small-scale piece. The action was scattered across a gaping stage with no semblance of focus; and the set, which seemed to have been made from stretched bed-linen, looked cheap. What The Palace needs is a Graham Vick production at Glyndebourne, or maybe a Richard Jones at Opera North. That sharp English libretto is already there, just begging to be used.

Back in England, the first week of The Proms has been flying a flag for the motherland and the new: the joint theme for this year's centenary season. On the motherland front there was a dismal concert of Elgar, Walton and Vaughan Williams by the BBC Concert Orchestra (who weren't up to it) counterbalanced by an impressive Enigma Variations two days later from the Philharmonia. As for the new, Thursday brought the British premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies's The Beltane Fire, which, I regret to say, didn't burn very brightly. Played by the BBC Philharmonic and conducted by the composer, this 40- minute piece is in essence a ballet that never reached the stage; and I can guess why, because the writing doesn't offer enough rhythmic contrast or variety. The pace is slow and sombre until near the end, when it erupts into a sort of pastoral overdrive. What's more, it feels like territory Davies has essayed before, with its Scottish-folk embellishments and anti-Christian narrative rooted in Orkney legends. The compensation is that it also exploits the masterful handling of large-scale forms and forces Davies has perfected in his symphonies, and with an engagingly utilitarian attention to detail that makes the score read like a Blue Peter script. Percussion requirements include a bunch of keys, a soap- dish, and a "small supermarket carton such as contained tomatoes, etc, crumpled to sound like the crackle of burning wood". I neither heard nor saw this crackle in performance, but it's good to know that in principle Sir Peter's music now contains things we can all do at home. And here's a ballet I made earlier ...