Duke Bluebeard’s Castle… in a castle? Site-specific opera productions are all the rage right now, but Savonlinna Opera Festival has a natural advantage over other venues when it comes to Bartók’s only opera: their productions take place in St Olaf’s, a 15th-century three-tower castle on an island in the southern Finnish lakes. And yes, they’ve staged Tosca there too! Francis Hüser’s new staging of Bartók’s chilling one-act opera, paired with the Finnish premiere of Outi Tarkiainen’s A Room of One’s Own, is the final production in this summer’s festival which runs throughout July, when the sun doesn’t set until past 10pm.

The venue for Savonlinna Opera Festival – Olavinlinna Castle
© Savonlinna Opera Festival

The festival opens with Amy Lane’s production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, which opened at Malmö Opera last November. Like Leonard Bernstein in West Side Story, Lane transplants the action to New York, although further back in time, set on New Year’s Eve in 1889. Roméo, from an Italian immigrant family, gatecrashes the Capulets’ masked ball and falls for Juliette and the rest, as they say, is history. Expect dancing, circus and New York gang rivalry before the tragic denouement. For this transfer to Savonlinna, conductor Yves Abel has assembled a starry double cast, led by coloratura soprano of the moment Lisette Oropesa as Juliette and Frédéric Antoun as Roméo. 

From a new production to a classic: August Everding’s staging of Die Zauberflöte celebrates its 50th anniversary at Savonlinna this summer (making it significantly older than his equally classic version for the Staatsoper Berlin). Incredibly, it is a production that has already been seen by over 200,000 people! It was the great Finnish bass Martti Talvela who first brought designer Toni Businger to St Olaf’s in the 1970s, arriving by rowing boat in the middle of winter. Inspired by the imposing castle setting, Businger turned Sarastro’s lions to the black rams of local legend to create the look for Mozart’s fairytale opera. Sung in Finnish, Everding’s production is revived by Erik Söderblom and conducted by Sakari Oramo. Anu Komsi sings the Queen of the Night. 

Il barbiere di Siviglia at Savonlinna Opera Festival
© Savonlinna Opera Festival

Another audience favourite returning this summer is Kari Heiskanen’s production of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, where the comedy is heightened by Antti Mattila’s bright designs in a modern setting, and costumes by fashion designer Teemu Muurimäki. Leading the cast is Armenian mezzo-soprano Gayane Babajanyan as Rosina and the young Finnish baritone Ville Rusanen, who sings Figaro the barber, who is also Seville’s factotum and general fixer. Rossini’s score fizzes with memorable melodies, making this the perfect festival opera for a summer evening.

From North Rhine-Westphalia, Theater Hagen brings a production of Anatevka… known to English-speaking audiences as Fiddler on the Roof and forever associated with Topol in the 1971 film adaptation of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s musical. Tevye, the optimistic milkman in the Ukrainian village of Anatevka, protects his Jewish roots in the face of late Imperial Russia on the verge of revolution. Thomas Weber-Schallauer’s production, sung in German, is conducted by Steffen Müller-Gabriel. 

Savonlinna boasts a unique medieval atmosphere
© Savonlinna Opera Festival

The Bartók/Tarkianen double bill also comes courtesy of Theater Hagen. Bluebeard’s Castle has a lurid synopsis perfect for a castle setting at dusk. Duke Bluebeard brings his new bride, Judith, to his seemingly deserted castle. To lift the gloom, Judith requests the doors be opened to let in the light, but Bluebeard is reluctant to give her the keys. Judith persists, Bluebeard relents, and Judith is left to her fate, as the horrors multiply. Bartók created a claustrophobic, psychological drama to which director Francis Hüsers adds his own twist, spinning a thread relating to captivity. 

The pairing is very clever, focusing on another Judith battling male oppression: Judith Shakespeare, the fictional sister of the famous playwright in Virginia Woolf’s extended essay A Room of One’s Own. Published in 1929, the book explores women’s role in society and questions why women are overshadowed by men: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Commissioned by Theater Hagen to a libretto by Hüsers, A Room of One’s Own is Outi Tarkiainen first opera, receiving its world premiere in May 2022, directed by Magdalena Fuchsberger. With the Bartók, it should prove a powerful pairing. 

Lisette Oropesa
© Savonlinna Opera Festival

For something lighter, the festival takes advantage of the presence of an operatic superstar and gives Lisette Oropesa a solo recital with pianist Rubén Fernández Aguirre. The upbeat Cuban-American soprano is universally acclaimed everywhere, from the Metropolitan Opera to Covent Garden, for her outstanding technique, dazzling high notes and engaging stage presence. She’s sure to bring that sparkle to the Savonlinna stage in July.

This preview was sponsored by Savonlinna Opera Festival