Roger, the owner of the Gramex CD shop in London, would diagnose operamania as a true and genuine condition and looking at some of the things the sufferers do, one would be inclined to agree that this (benign) illness must exist. One obvious symptom is to look at a location and to think: "Yes. We could put operas on here". John Christie did it at Glyndebourne and Finnish soprano Aino Ackte did the same when she saw the Olavinlinna Castle in Savonlinna. Since the first festival in 1912, the Savonlinna Opera Festival has become a major event and acquired a regular international audience; flying on the small plane between Helsinki and Savonlinna will likely be the only time one is in a cabin consisting entirely of opera-lovers.

The 2017 Festival kicked off with Mozart's first enduringly successful work for the stage, Die Entführung aus dem Serail which exploded onto the Viennese audience and prompted the anecdotal comment “there are too many notes” from the (otherwise) enlightened Joseph II. It’s a piece that occasionally causes controversy when directors try to make too much of the East v West point; as the director of this production, Katariina Lahti points out in her optimistic programme note, the composer tapped into the contemporary interest in all things Eastern, but is more interested in dealing with the personalities of his characters, not the race.

The set for this production was limited by the necessity of the venue, but effective enough: palm trees and statues of exotic animals on either side of the long stage, and a small central stage encircled on three sides by a walkway and raised level. A large moon at the back is always present and, as the opera begins, cerulean waves are projected onto the rear wall, the shadow of a ship slowly makes its way across the castle wall and upon arrival the waves are replaced by the shadows of palm trees. Lahti’s treatment of the opera is fairly straightforward and consistent, only falling into a degree of silliness when Belmonte’s third act aria “Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke” gets an accompanying labyrinth with moving balls of light projected onto the wall which grew to a point where one wondered if Pac-Man might be joining the cast. Lahti seems to emphasise the buffoonery of Osmin’s character more than the the threatening, rapacious elements which seemed to de-fang a nasty piece of work just a bit too much.

The production benefited from strong casting; it is only fair to begin with Hulkar Sabirova who was singing the production’s alternative Konstanze and seems to have stepped in at short notice to sing first night. Sabirova’s voice is a luxury instrument with a creaminess that makes you want to check your waistband to see how much weight you’ve gained by hearing it. Konstanze is a role that cries out for lavish coloratura and Sabirova, while a touch restrained in “Ach ich liebte” really let rip in a nicely ornamented “Martern aller Arten” with clear, unforced high notes, hit with precision and without any strain in getting there. Diction veered towards the muggy side on occasion, but she brought a degree of complexity to the role, suggesting by her body language that Selim’s affection was not entirely without effect.  

Singing Belmonte, Tuomas Katajala was sweetly lyrical and there was a strong tendency to sing from the text; diction was particularly strong in the first half, though it dropped slightly for a “Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke” which nonetheless showed Katajala has a strong higher register. Projection was strong; although it didn’t feel like the largest tenor voice, he was perfectly audible without sounding laboured.

Lucrezia Drei was a sparky and dynamic Blonde with a fine vocal range and integrated registers. High notes were solid, phrasing was good and Drei played the part with a sense of humour that brought the comedy to life. Pedrillo’s music doesn't quite have the same pizzazz as Belmonte’s and Cosmin Ifrim didn’t feel entirely inspired by it, largely tending to play it safe. He was a characterful stage presence however; scenes with Osmin were brought off well and he was dramatically a decent match for Blonde. Jyrki Korhonen seemed to be having an off-night as Osmin: his lower register was badly projected and virtually inaudible at times. Sebastian Wirnitzer in the spoken role of Selim gave a performance of frustration and humanity.

In the pit things were largely stable under the baton of Christoph Altstaedt; minor issues with string intonation and brass strength will doubtless be ironed out as the run advances. Tempi choices were generally solid and there’s much to be said in praise of the vibrant percussion that played the opera as it’s meant to be played: with fun.


Dominic's press trip to Finland was sponsored by the Savonlinna Opera Festival