No contemporary composer has had a closer relationship with the Savonlinna Festival than Aulis Sallinen; most of his operas have been performed at the festival and several had their world première within the stony embrace of the Olavinlinna Castle. It’s no surprise, then, that a musical association with the fifteenth century fortress has provided inspiration for a new work, commissioned to commemorate one hundred years of Finnish independence. The composer doesn’t class Linna vedessä (or The Castle in the Water) as an opera exactly, but something rather new: a chronicle in four parts for narrator, four singers, chamber orchestra and Olavinlinna. That’s right: the castle itself plays a central role in the performance.

Sallinen has a good track record when it comes to choosing a solid text for his music and in a selection of poetry from the book of the same name by Lassi Nummi, written in the mid-1970s, he has struck gold. Take the opening: “In the beginning was the word. No, in the beginning there was silence, peace. Wilderness. Infinity. / The aspens rustled, the brook babbled, swallows swooshed through the sky. All day long, no sounds but these.” The mysticism of a land before humanity starts ripping into the earth, digging foundations, is beautifully evoked in semi-numinous tones. The work is divided into twelve sections and recounts some of the history of Olavinlinna interwoven with personal anecdotes of people connected to it, both noble and peasant. Throughout the piece, Olavinlinna is personalised; I avoid the term “anthropomorphism”, because the suggestion is that it is more a stone god, devouring local lives and resources to bring itself into being. One of the most moving moments is in the third section when the unnamed Savonian woman tells of the death of her husband, overlain by his own ghostly comments. She declares “The castle was greedy... the castle is a god that has demanded a sacrifice.”

While the politics of Olavinlinna and its strategic use are interesting, it is with this kind of domestic anecdote that the chronicle is at its most interesting. Gradually the castle becomes a more impassive repository of stories; we hear the tale of Sara Ursina, the vicar’s daughter who had an affair while her husband was at war and killed the resulting child, and was then herself put to death. The chronicle ends with the castle in retirement, “an old man sitting on a rock, time around him has stopped.” Olavinlinna has become part of the surrounding landscape.

The score is a delight: a throbbing drum beat opening hints at the pulse of nature. The music is tonal, but extremely varied, encompassing a wide range of moods from the urgent militancy of the colliding armies in the second section to the quirky jerkiness of “The Hop Waltz” which starts with the words “Ale was a problem.” The writing for harp is particularly beautiful and there’s a wonderful lushness to the deeper strings. The blackness of Sara Ursina’s music is in brilliant, striking contrast to the evocative depiction of the escape by boat and horse of the German colonel, Joachim Mitzloff, held prisoner in the castle in the 1630s. It is chamber music composition of the highest order. Although every section is strong, the first section, with its pastoral beauty, stood out. Sallinen also uses recorded sound, broadcast from different speakers around the huge courtyard to adjust the spatio-musical performance structure, removing the spartan centrality of the stage for a larger, more abstract performance space.

Wandering the stage in casual dress, coming and going as the music dictated, the four soloists were uniformly good; Tiina-Maija Koskela’s soprano has a lovely delicacy in its higher register, silvery and clean, but with an edge that lets it cut right through during tutti sections. Tommi Hakala’s baritone is full-bodied and naturally melodic with a keen top; at one point, he filed the voice down to the finest thread, but his projection was sufficient for this to be appreciably audible. Jussi Myllys’ pale-toned tenor and Tuija Knihtilä’s broad mezzo-soprano, brilliantly coloured for the Ursina music, completed an excellent quartet. Jukka-Pekka Palo’s clear and characterful narration, sombre or gleeful when the occasion called for it, was an advantage to the performance. Conductor Ville Matvejeff drew a superb performance from a reduced Opera Festival Orchestra, sat on stage behind the soloists.

The only remaining question is how well the piece will fare when performed away from Olavinlinna; the brooding hulk of the castle did lend a certain romanticism to the performance which will be difficult to replicate in an ordinary concert hall. But with little needed on stage in the way of props, and calling for minimal musical resources, it’s a powerful, innovative work that deserves to be seen and heard multiple times.


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