CLASSICAL MUSIC / House-warming for northern lights

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NOT EVERYONE in Finland wanted a new opera house. There was a small, chilly picket standing in the snow outside the Helsinki Ooppera when it officially opened on Tuesday night. With the country deep in recession (with 20 per cent unemployment) you could understand why its austerely elegant, white-and-chrome, pounds 100m presence might at this moment seem an insult to the poor. But opera houses are notmomentary projects. This one has taken a century or so to plan, 17 years to build, and it bears witness to the cultural long- sightedness of a government that accepts its modest claims to military and economic power and has sought to define its national identity in other terms.

The epic-heroic potential of opera appeals to the Finns for much the same reason that it appealed to the Italians 150 years ago. Finnish composers have accordingly been nurtured to a degree that their British counterparts would probably prefer not to know about. And the result is that, unlikely as it may seem, Finland is now one of the leading centres for new opera in the world, with a corpus of works the more remarkable for having sprung, immaculately, from nowhere, with no real tradition to draw on.

All this has happened in

the last 20 years, just as if the

creative momentum of Benjamin Britten (d. 1976) had passed up through the Baltic. And indeed, if you were looking for an obvious successor to Britten - for a composer of credible, serious but accessible music theatre - the most obvious candidate would have to be the Finn Aulis Sallinen, whose

Kullervo was chosen to be the opening production in the

Helsinki house.

This was its European premiere (it should have been a world premiere, but the building took so long to complete that Kullervo first surfaced last year in Los Angeles) and it was a brave choice, because the opera isn't exactly celebratory. It's a dark and pessimistic myth - taken from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala - that pursues the eponymous central character down a single-track route to disaster, despair and self-destruction.

Kullervo is a Nordic amalgam of Peter Grimes and Terminator 2, with Job and Oedipus thrown in: a victim-aggressor who metes out death and violence on a terrifying scale but claims sympathy as the henchman of some preordained scheme over which he has no personal control. He could be something out of Wagner, but his death brings no redemption; and the unrelenting nihilism of the piece - lightened only by a couple of whimsical scenes which are its least successful moments - is a problem. Its dramatic contour has no rise and fall: just fall, from the first bar, as the screw turns with a stark, classical severity that Sallinen signals in a motivic reference (presumably conscious?) to Strauss's Elektra at the close of the first act.

Like all Sallinen's operas (this is his fourth), Kullervo has a magpie-like eclecticism. To belong to no particular tradition is to take from everyone else's; and Sallinen's allusions (to Bartok, Berg and cabaret vernacular as well as Strauss) can be enriching. Kullervo's command of texture (which includes a synthesiser in the orchestra) is glamorous and exciting, as opposed to cheap and second-hand. The few tender moments (duet scenes between Kullervo, his mother and his childhood friend Kimmo) are effective. And the final monologue, as Kullervo faces death, is the most potent new theatre music I've heard for a long while. Sallinen is, if nothing else, a pro. He has a nose for theatre (Kullervo sets his own libretto); his timing is good. And he makes the likes of Michael Tippett look like shambling amateurs.

He also inspires superb performances. This is the same production that played in Los Angeles (by Kalle Holmberg, who keeps largely the same cast), so the delivery is secure and in some cases - the tenor Jorma Silvasti as Kimmo, the soprano Eeva-Liisa Saarinen as the mother - outstanding. The chorus (who comment Greek- style on the action) come in the best tradition of Nordic choral singing, fiercely controlled by the conductor, Ulf Soderblom. And above all, the Kullervo of Jorma Hynninen is electrifying: a charismatic performance from a distinguished baritone, smallish in vocal size but incisive and unforgettable. One of the objectives of the Helsinki house is to attract international stars, if there is ever the money to plan far enough ahead to book them. But with native singers of this calibre, the Finns could manage without.

A final thing to say is that the production fitted the house very comfortably. The Ooppera is, as everybody tells you, twice the size of the Finnish Parliament. Its facilities are state-of- the-art, and its cool, uncluttered lines feel spacious. Big enough, certainly, for the Wagner and Strauss that the Finns have never been able to do properly before. But with 1,365 seats, the auditorium is not enormous: it doesn't swamp new, leaner work. And the designs for Kullervo seemed to be an extension of the building, picking up the granite and beechwood colouring of its surfaces and suggesting (I think) that the terrible events on stage were actually taking place within our own lives. I just hope that the Finnish 'fit' will not stop Kullervo from travelling. It's an extraordinary and major work. We ought to have it at the Coliseum. Or at Opera North.

Meanwhile, Covent Garden's Zauberflote has had an across-the-board cast change; and while second casts usually mean less interest, this one includes some stunning Royal Opera debuts. One of them is Rosa Mannion, who makes a superb Pamina, thinner-voiced than Amanda Roocroft's before, but all the better for it, with a pure, bright clarity that should have been seized on by the Garden long ago. Another is the first British opera appearance of the Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair, who was known here already as an outstanding recitalist - but could he act? The answer (reassuringly) is yes; and his Papageno had all the enlivening care for text combined with lyric beauty of voice that have been the hallmark of his appearances at the Wigmore Hall. The Zauberflote production remains as tacky as ever, and Holzmair doesn't look entirely comfortable with what he has to do; but you can't blame him for that.

There were ticket touts outside the Wigmore last week when Cecilia Bartoli appeared in recital: such are the returns- only of fame, and conclusive proof that this young coloratura mezzo has made it in a big way. But anyone who paid over the odds to get in would have got a fairly lightweight programme for their money. I don't undervalue Bartoli's achievements. She is an enchanting, charismatic singer, brilliantly alive, with a technique that activates a heavy and opaque tone into feats of wonderful agility. But she is anchored to a fairly limited early bel canto repertoire whose stock-in-trade is pastoral pathos and gymnastic tricks. It's only when she moves on to Rossini that she opens an escape route to other possibilities. I hope she takes it - or she will not mature into the artist of compassion, depth and substance one would want, but fossilise into a charming freak.