Opera: The axeman cometh Birth of a nation

Aleksis Kivi Savonlinna Opera Festival, Finland
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The Independent Culture
The music of the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara has been making rapid headway in recent years, with two of his works, Angel of Light and Angels and Visitations, performing impressively in the record charts in both Britain and the USA. There was bound, therefore, to be much interest focused on Rautavaara's latest opera, Aleksis Kivi (his seventh or eighth, depending on what one counts) at its world premiere at the Savonlinna Opera Festival.

The subject of the opera, Aleksis Kivi (1834-72), is a national hero: the man who put Finnish literature on the map. In his lifetime, however, he was derided by the literary establishment (embodied in the opera by his chief antagonist, Professor Ahlqvist) and even his supporters turned their backs. He suffered a mental breakdown, succumbing to schizophrenia, and died at the age of 38.

Rautavaara, as usual preparing his own libretto, presents Kivi as both the young idealist (played admirably by Hans Lydman) and as the tortured, rejected poet (Jorma Hynninen, whose intense, superbly sung portrayal could scarcely be bettered). We see first the latter in a Prologue, where Hynninen makes a menacing entrance brandishing an axe; then we are taken back to Kivi's earlier days, his initial acclamation by the people, and the devastating opposition of Ahlqvist. An actor, Lasse Poysti, takes the spoken role of the insecure, jealous professor, seen pushing the senior poet JL Runeberg about in a wheelchair (symbolic of Ahlqvist's pushing of Runeberg's reactionary aesthetics, hostile to Kivi and Finnish self- determination). The caricatured portrayal of a senile, demented Runeberg by another actor, Marcus Groth, is one of the few miscalculations of Vilppu Kiljunen's excellent production, which focuses clearly on the psychological issues that make this a work of universal import. Markku Uimonen's set, evocatively lit by Ilkka Paloniemi, uses the rock walls of the subterranean Retretti Arts Centre to fine effect, though there is little attempt to define interior or exterior space.

Rautavaara's artistic progress has never been predictable, and Kivi has few of the poleaxing sonorities that crystallise from time to time out of the seething textures of the Angels works. What it does supremely well, however, is to conjure a mood of profound melancholy out of barely altered minor triads: one senses these chords welling up in the subconscious and breaking through the surface. A slight disappointment is the restriction of scoring imposed by the venue. The two clarinets, intended to supply the rustic element, in fact bring welcome relief from a string-dominated texture, while the DX-7 synthesiser is severely underexploited in evoking the realm of the mythical and irrational.

On the positive side, the chamber forces (provided by the accomplished Classic Stars under Marcus Lehtinen) allow the gratefully written vocal lines to emerge with exceptional clarity, and there is not a bar of this 100-minute score that does not impress with its sheer beauty. That quality, combined with the dramatic power and conviction of the opera, should enable it to succeed outside its native context.