When we think of tragedy, our minds tend to go to the great Classical Greek playwrights, to Shakespeare or perhaps Puccini and Verdi. But we seekers of doom and despair have been looking in the wrong place; the “Kullervo” chapters of the Finnish epic The Kalevala trounces anything the Athenians can throw at us. Aulis Sallinen’s Kullervo adaptation premièred in 1992; taking as his starting point the Finnish author Aleksis Kivi’s theatrical adaptation of 1864, Sallinen ripped out the dialogue and wrote his own.

There’s no escaping the brutality of the work which begins with the escalating quarrel between two brothers, Unto and Kalervo, and culminates in the slaughter of Kalervo’s tribe and the burning of his house. Only Kalervo’s son, Kullervo, now a slave in Unto’s house, is believed to have survived. Kullervo goes on to kill the wife of his new master the Blacksmith – because she baked a stone in his lunch – unknowingly sleep with his sister Ainikki who kills herself when she discovers his identity, reunite with the rest of his family, fall out with them and march off to kill all of Unto’s tribe. On the way, his friend Kimmo reports that his family has died, and by the time he starts his journey back, Kimmo himself has gone mad.The most obvious path for Kullervo is of course self-immolation, through which he redeems himself by purging the last of a cursed family from the earth. We’re in a world where the strong rule, vengeance is common and cruelty is the currency, and it finds its match in Sallinen’s score which boils, howls and shrieks with the twists of the drama. Sallinen’s control of the orchestra is skillful; the inky darkness that pervades the score from the opening notes that bleed with foreboding is just about kept at bay, and there are moments of astonishing originality, most notably the Blind Singer’s aria “Once a youth was travelling far and wide”, which is exceptional, almost jazzy, and easily one of the best narrative arias of the 20th century. The brass and percussion writing is outrageously good, contributing to a dramatic pulse that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

The titular character was sung by Ville Rusanen and he brought a brilliant inhumanity to the role: chillingly still for much of the time, held apart from the other singers by his warped psyche, at other times almost leonine in the way he stalked the stage. It’s a taxing role to sing, but Rusanen was tireless in his performance. In his voice there was always a hint of a threat, a suggestion that the violence might break loose; the lower register was treacle-black and smooth, the phrasing pointed and the projection solid enough to push through the orchestral maelstrom. If Kullervo is the stone heart of the opera, then Kullervo’s mother is its soul, an anchor point of warmth and light in Kullervo’s black depths. Johanna Rusanen-Kartano took the role and owned it, her thick and lustrous soprano pouring out across the stage, the top of the voice soaring in absolute security, coloured generously and shaded with care.

Kimmo is the only other character with genuine affection for Kullervo. Sung by tenor Dan Karlström, the top of the voice was thin and light, a crafted weakness against Kullervo’s burly baritone. His acting was strong, particularly the childish pathos of his mad scene, and he was subtle with his suggestion of a homoerotic charge with Kullervo. Other standouts included Niina Keitel as the Blacksmith’s younger wife – cherry-dark mezzo, seductive and sensual – and singer Birthe Wingren, better known for her work in musicals, who was an enigmatic Blind Singer (though I missed the male voice originally used for the role). Tiina Penttinen was imposing as Unto’s wife, the bottom of her voice guttural as she casually plotted murder.

Pit performance was superb under Hannu Lintu’s baton, the volume tempered just enough to be comfortable for his singers, the tempi tight and relentless. Nor could one complain about the Greek Tragedy-style chorus, which produced a massive sound, but with musicality and clear diction. Sadly the quality of the performers was undermined by Kari Heiskanen’s bizarre production: the outlines of three white houses and a central, twisting black house comprised the set, costumes were anachronistic and what’s more the chorus at one point donned rat masks, a trend previously thought to be confined to Bayreuth. Some elements work: the sudden darting out of the chorus from behind a porous fence and the use of lighting are strong, and Heiskanen’s stage direction of an enormous cast is deftly managed. With a stronger concept to match the quality of the cast and orchestra, this production could have been something quite spectacular.


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