Monday 21 July 2008

The splendour falls on castle walls it certainly did from my central vantage-point in the Great Hall of Savonlinna's Olavinlinna Castle on my first night there, when the Egyptian trumpets of Aida's ceremonial scene ricocheted left and right. I suppose Verdi's Macbeth would be the ultimate experience in this venerable 15th century Finnish fortress; and yet we were not disappointed by the heavy rain which fell in ever increasing torrents on the acoustic canvas covering just as Mefistofele led Faust to the wild witches' sabbath in Boito's kitsch take on Goethe, nor by the screaming seagulls punctuating The Flying Dutchman.

The biggest surprise was to find how sharp and clear both the voices and the superlative composite Finnish orchestra sounded in this spectacular venue. Aida was glowingly if unobtrusively conducted by Paolo Olmi, with the most electrifying and tonally various heroine I think I shall ever see and hear in the title role, a young African American called Adina Aaron (note that name; and I'm told the other Aida, Kristin Lewis, was just as good). Her demeanour immediately suggested a downtrodden slave, not a proud prima donna, and as well as acting everyone else off the stage, she had both the drive for 'Ritorna vincitor' and the ethereal beauty for the final duet (only a tiny part of 'O patria mia' gave her a bit of trouble). How rare for the soprano to win more of a roar from the crowd than the mezzo Amneris, though Elena Bocharova was as equal to her task as any of the cast, which also included a stalwart (if loud) Radames, Dongwon Shin - Botha had been singing before him - two first-class basses as Ramfis (veteran Finn Jaako Ryhanen, still one of their best and a relaxed Daland two nights later) and King (the young Pole Rafal Siwek). The Amonasro, Mikail Babajanyan, was reliable if wooden, but then the production didn't encourage acting of any individuality; that Aaron won through was due to her innate intensity. Here she is with the other Amonasro, Lado Ataneli (all production photographs taken for the festival by Timo Seppalainen).

Came the second night, and the relative merits of production and singers were reversed. While the casting was by no means as strong, there was fun to be had from the staging by wacky Swiss Dieter Kaeti which didn't take Boito's pretensions very seriously (and for heaven's sake, or hell's, it's not much more Goethe than Gounod). An ocean-liner 1920s entertainment was the framework into which not everything fitted very easily; but there was a fabulous Classical Walpurgis Night turned into a Hellenic pageant with a fat-lady Helen (the resplendent Elena Pankratova) and camp muscle marys in Greek poses:

The festival made a bit of a mistake in flagging the all-too-young home-grown bass Mika Kares as the devil: he had neither as yet the voice for the role, nor the charisma which Chaliapin had stamped on it (and through whom, I guess, the rather amateurishly executed piece still survives in the rep). There were an OK Faust and an execrable Margarita, though we were back on international form the following evening when Pankratova returned as a rather Gorgonic Senta who might have eaten both the solid Erik and another uncharismatic protagonist, the unfocused Dutchman of Jason Stearns, for breakfast. She sounded, however, like a rock-solid potential Brunnhilde with a gleaming middle register and a top which, when it worked, thrilled. Stefan Soltesz's hell-for-leather pace set the second act ablaze, and to run from the excitement of the duet to more splendid antiphonal choral singing in the great Act Three battle of Norwegians and demons really was quite something.

Now, this has turned into more of a straight review than I'd intended. Yet Savonlinna was a magical summer place to be for three days, despite spells of torrential rain. The worst cleared as I enjoyed a marvellous lunch with distinguished TV director, commentator and festival doyen Aarno Cronvall at a top-notch brewery restaurant by the water, the delightful Huvila with its home-made bread and cider perfectly complementing lake-caught pike-perch (I also became addicted to the local fried fish, muikku, which I ended up eating at least twice a day).

With the skies clear by then, it seemed a bit of a waste to be stuck indoors for an hour watching a children's opera, The Seven Dog Brothers. But it was a treat to experience the excellent wooden theatre behind the casino, and the opera was a little gem: a lively staging by Johanna Freundlich of Finland's most famous work of literature next to the Kalevala, about a group of hicks who eventually settle down and get an education though not before getting up to all sorts of larks, drawn and retold with gusto by the very witty Mauri Kunnas (even more famous for The Canine Kalevala). The picture-book production was complemented by Markus Fagerudd's lively score - not too difficult for the children's choir, more so for the crackling orchestra and a good team of soloists. Here are the canine siblings, led by Hannu Jurmu's loveable Juhani.

Anyway the kids seemed to love it, and since they understood Finnish better than I, they clearly didn't find it just ten minutes too long. I took even more pleasure immediately afterwards in plunging into the lake behind the hotel. Here it is on first acquaintance:

There can be few bathes more delicious than those in a northern lake. I took one every day, with the extra pleasure of swimming round a small island with querulous birdlife on it. By midnight of the same glorious day, when the mosquitoes made a further dip hazardous, the sun finally set behind the same island of Sievensaari:

My last pre-performance treat the following morning was a trip up the lakes to the arts centre at Retretti. I was delighted to have the company of composer, conductor, professor and animateur extraordinaire Tapani Lansio and his wife. We spent the two-hour journey, hosted by the lovely Katya from the Press Office, and half the time while walking through the gallery's underground installations, Leonardo machines and comprehensive exhibition of the admirable artist Ellen Thesleff chewing the contemporary cud and generally finding we agreed on everything (I won't say whom among his peers the forthright Tapani especially admired and whom he treated with a little more caution - Finland is a relatively small pond, after all, despite its immense cultural wealth). Here we are just after disembarking from the SS Heinavesi.

And so the daytime and the after-Dutchman time passed very warmly and pleasantly indeed. To round it all off neatly, back at Helsinki airport I bumped into the delightful Tasmanian lady I'd met on the plane to Savonlinna, Elizabeth Ruthven, who'd enthused me with tales of the 15,000-strong choirs in Latvia. Hobart and the mountainous island don't sound bad places at all, and even more attractive now I understand that Tasmania has a more liberal government. Next stop?

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