Finland is celebrating its 100th anniversary of indepence (from Russia) this year and what better way to celebrate than with the world première of an opera. Die Kalewainen in Pochjola (The Men of Kaleva in Pohjola) by Karl Müller-Berghaus was composed in 1890, but was only given its first complete staging in Turku this week by the Turku Music Festival and Turku Philharmonic under the baton of its music director Leif Segerstam in the repurposed industrial Logomo Hall.

The four-act opera is based on Elias Lönnrot's epic poem Kalevala, compiled from Karelian and Finnish folklore and mythology sources in 1835. This work also fascinated German born Karl Müller-Berghaus (1829–1907) who was music director of the Musical Society of Turku from 1888-1895, who had F. W. O. Spengler write the libretto in German.

The plot concerns young Ahti and his followers travelling to Pohjola to court Ismo, the beautiful daughter of the matriarch Louchi. He fails and dies while carrying out qualifying tasks. Next comes the old sage Väinämöinen. If he can forge a Sampo (good luck amulet), then he can have young Ismo. Since he cannot forge, he calls upon his younger brother Ilmarinen, who falls in love with Ismo. She sings hints for forging the Sampo.

Meanwhile, Ahti’s mother Luonnotar, senses her son’s death and appears looking for him. Louchi denies any wrongdoing, thereby bringing revenge upon herself.

Ilmarinen forges the Sampo and wants to claim Ismo as his wife. Power-hungry Louchi steals the Sampo and takes Ismo away. In pursuit of Louchi, Ilmarinen and his men traverse the Valley of Death, where Väinämöinen has led Luonnotar to find her dead son Ahti. She prays him back to life. All unite in battle against Louchi. Ismo’s singing leads them to her, enchained by her mother. Väinämöinen’s magic runes bring victory, Ilmarinen gets the Sampo and Ismo.

Müller-Berghaus was an accomplished composer, influenced by early works of Wagner and Meyerbeer, making Kalewainen a work in the tradition of the German Romantic Opera, with rousing passages for orchestra, melodious arias and fiery ensembles for the main characters and chorus.

Why has this work not been staged before? After the second act was performed at a gala concert in 1890, the score was sent to several opera houses in Europe. Only Hamburg responded positively and wanted to stage it in 1892; however, a cholera epidemic cancelled these plans. Müller-Berghaus returned to Germany, his health faded, the score was archived and “lost”.  Only recently was it accidentally found in the Turku City Library. Dr Elke Albrecht has been key in ongoing musicological research and responsible for the excellent programme book in four languages.

With the orchestra placed at the very back of the multi-purpose space, stage designer Teppo Järvinen created 15 mobile podiums of varying heights, which stage director Tiina Puumalainen moved around creating effective landscapes, helped by the dramatic lighting of Teemu Nurmelin. Choreographer Osku Heiskanen enlivened the story with ritual movements carried out by the very able Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis. Pirjo Liiri-Majava designed nordic fantasy costumes for the soloists, underscoring the qualities of the characters (vines and flowers for the maiden Ismo, a red velvet cape for the matriarch, etc.).

A space such as Logomo needs sound enhancement: The capable technicians at Bright Finland had the sensibility to balance orchestra, soloists and chorus. The production team and the singers are all from Finland, a testimony to the great musical and artistic tradition in this country.

Tommi Hakala was resplendent as the heroic baritone role of Ilmarinen. The clear and beautiful soprano of Kaisa Ranta was a perfect foil as Ismo. She delighted in playful coloraturas in her initial scene with her mother Louchi, portrayed by the dramatic soprano Johanna Rusanen-Kartano (an apt sister to the Queen of the Night) who grandly showed off the wide range of her voice. The melodious bass of Petri Lindroos as the wise Väinämöinen was fully in line with his character. Mezzo Anna Danik embodied the grieving mother with beauty of timbre. Tenor Christian Juslin brought youthful sparkle to the role of Achti. Petter Andersson was a charming little magician, sidekick to Louchi.

It is surely to the credit of conductor Leif Segerstam that this work was chosen as the Turku Philharmonic’s contribution towards the national celebrations and it is surely he who was the motor behind the musical rediscovery of this monumental work. Together with the excellent playing of the orchestra, the soloists and the chorus, Segerstam deserved the rousing applause from the sold-out hall and a (rarely given) standing ovation.