It seems inconceivable that the burly medieval stonemasons and bricklayers who built the huge ramparts of Finland’s Olavinlinna Castle could ever have imagined their craftsmanship would one day provide the perfect setting for an art form not even dreamt of in their day. Or maybe they did. Ville Matvejeff, the new artistic director of the Savonlinna Opera Festival, says its setting and acoustics are so perfect that he has been joking with his colleagues that the builders must have had some sort of a vision. He could imagine them saying: “One day, they will be performing opera here” as they heaved great granite blocks into place.

Olavinlinna castle © Valtteri Hirvonen
Olavinlinna castle
© Valtteri Hirvonen

If that sounds a little whimsical, it’s a measure of the way the magical nature of this venerable festival inspires the imagination of performers and audiences alike. Flights of fancy are never far away when great music is performed in a spectacular setting on a warm summer night beside a limpid lake.

Established in 1912 and running continuously since 1967, the Savonlinna Festival is now in the hands of one of Finland’s most dynamic young musicians. Matvejeff, 33, has what he describes as his “dream job” as artistic director, one in which he can draw upon all his skills as conductor, pianist and composer. “I’ve been asked how I’m planning to revitalise the festival. I want to start with the opera itself. Interesting productions, captivating drama and ravishing music in the lakeland summer night are what make us unique. They are the soul of the festival, which I want to nurture. I’ve also aimed to select singers, conductors and directors who I know will bring a breath of fresh air to the castle stage.”

Ville Matvejeff © Juha Törmälä
Ville Matvejeff
© Juha Törmälä

His first season this summer will feature Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger – “one of my top three operas” – in a new production that marks the work’s first staging in Finland. He admires what he sees as the Polish composer’s ability to “continue the romantic tradition in an expressionist way, maintaining the lyricism of Chopin but bowing towards Scriabin in harmonic development and orchestral sound. It’s quite unique.” He’s excited at the prospect of conducting for the first time a score that has been on his desk since he was a teenager. Fredrik Zetterström will sing Roger, with Helena Juntunen as Roxana and fast-rising Welsh tenor Sam Furness as the young Shepherd who lays visions of temptations and sensuality before Roger’s conservative court.

The inclusion of Furness is an example of Matvejeff’s mission to bring to the festival artists on the verge of their big international break. He’s also excited by the debut of Franco-Tunisian tenor Amadi Lagha, who will sing Don José in a revival of the festival’s Carmen, alongside Finnish mezzo Tuija Knihtilä in the title role.

And Matvejeff’s association with the Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka (this year’s European Capital of Culture) will see another milestone for Savonlinna – its first-ever staging of a Handel opera. Marin Blažević’s production of Giulio Cesare was first seen in Croatia in 2017. “Baroque opera is very close to my heart,” said Matvejeff, who will be conducting from the harpsichord. “I particularly love the virtuosic writing for the soloists,” he said, and he’s proud that Croatian stars Diana Haller and Anamarija Knego will be singing Cesare and Cleopatra respectively. Matvejeff will be conducting the Croatian National Theatre Orchestra, who play on modern instruments. “I do not take a puritan view on period performance,” he said. “Modern instruments bring an energetic brilliance to the sound, which we need in such a large space.”

Also from the Croatian National Theatre is a production of Jules Massenet's Werther, to be directed by Fabrizio Melano, who worked at New York’s Metropolitan Opera for 30 seasons and has directed singers from Callas to Scotto, Pavarotti and Domingo. He has discovered Slovenian tenor Aljaž Farasin for the role of Werther, while Charlotte will be sung by the Croatian mezzo Ivana Srbljan. “It’s an honour to have Melano at Savonlinna,” said Matvejeff. “He’s a direct link to the greatest names in the business and a fund of wonderful stories about working with such figures as Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi and Mirella Freni. He’s devised a very beautiful, intimate production of Werther.”

Last year’s production of The Barber of Seville was such a success that it is being revived this year with a new cast, conducted by Evelino Pidò. Young mezzo Annalisa Stroppa will sing Rosina and Finland’s number one tenor, the internationally-acclaimed Tuomas Katajala, will sing Count Almaviva.

Another favourite revived this year is Verdi’s La traviata, produced in association with Polish National Opera. The role of the tragic heroine Violetta will be shared by the Swedish soprano Ida Falk Winland and Finnish soprano Marjukka Tepponen, in this double-cast production, set in a steamy Paris nightclub.

Pianist Matvejeff partnered the great Finnish soprano Karita Mattila on a world tour in 2011, an association that is rewarded this summer with her agreeing to give two festive gala recitals to celebrate her 60th birthday, accompanied by the Opera Festival Orchestra, conducted by Hannu Lintu. She will include arias from her favourite roles, such as Ariadne, Elisabeth from Tannhäuser and Isolde. “It’s wonderful to have her in this year’s season,” said Matvejeff. “She is the most loved opera artist in Finland.”

<i>La Traviata</i> at Savonlinna Opera Festival © Soila Puurtinen
La Traviata at Savonlinna Opera Festival
© Soila Puurtinen

Another Matvejeff innovation is an evening with band Wardruna, whose music is heard on TV show Vikings. “Their music is somewhere between ethno-folk and rock and is popular in Finland,” he said. “They should bring in a different audience to enjoy the festival atmosphere.” It’s a break with the past, when the festival regularly booked Finland’s hugely popular heavy metal bands as – top fact, this – there are more heavy metal bands per capita in Finland than in any other country in the world. Who knew?

Planning is well advanced for the 2021 season, which will be announced this June, and 2022 is already on the table. Both seasons will follow Matvejeff’s desire to introduce exciting new talent in both the signature productions that audiences love and a range of new shows, some in collaboration with opera houses around the world.

Matvejeff is particularly proud that the festival generates the majority of its own funding. “Last year, we collected 87% of our budget through ticket sales and sponsorship,” he said. “That’s quite exceptional in Nordic countries where music is mostly supported by the state.”

The audience of 2,000 is comprised chiefly of loyal Finnish individuals – people who come back year after year – rather than corporate ticket-holders. Only about 10-15% are from outside Finland, so a visit is an opportunity to immerse yourself in a truly Finnish cultural highlight.

Matvejeff sees huge opportunities in expanding international partnerships and collaborations. “It’s the way the opera world is heading and it makes perfect sense,” he said, pointing out that last year, Savonlinna hosted David McVicar’s Covent Garden production of Verdi’s Rigoletto.

He will continue in his post as chief conductor of the Jyväskylä Sinfonia until 2022, but he has had to lay his composing aside for now. “Truth be told, the festival is taking the majority of my time, but my career as a conductor complements it, because working with other artists I get new ideas for Savonlinna.” 

No doubt those medieval castle builders would approve.

Savolinna Opera Festival runs from Friday 3 July to Saturday 1 August. Click here to find out more.

This article was sponsored by Savonlinna Opera Festival.