Lemminkaïnen, our fearless or rather foolhardy hero, seeks to win his bride in the Far North, a land of demonic animals, frozen wastes, deathly rivers, shamans, sorceresses and hidden dangers, a place where the power of song can conquer everything. What better tale for a children’s opera?

The Kalevala is a nineteenth century collection of epic verse from an oral tradition going back to ancient times, which serves as Finland’s national epic. Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton’s Swanhunter is a chamber opera which reworks one of its most vivid and dramatic tales, made famous by Sibelius: the swan of the title is the same one as Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela.

Adrian Dwyer as Lemminkäinen with ‘The Devil’s Horse’ © Richard Davenport
Adrian Dwyer as Lemminkäinen with ‘The Devil’s Horse’
© Richard Davenport
The story has huge appeal to children and grownups alike and Middleton’s libretto is crisp and pacy. The opera is written for six instruments and six singers, so theatre company The Wrong Crowd’s setting is a campsite with six tents: the idea of the campers swapping stories fits in neatly with the oral tradition of the poetry and opens the way for campers to fish puppets out of their tents to mix in with the action. Dove may not be a tuneful composer, but the opera's music is consistently attractive and thoroughly evocative: the choice of instruments (violin/bass/horn/accordion/harp/percussion) permits Dove to create plenty of the feel of Nordic folk music. Dove also shows mastery of shifting moods: six may not be a lot of instruments, but a bit of maths will tell you that they can be used in a lot of different combinations, and Dove is able to explore a large number of them to create a series of effects which match the unfolding story.

The six singers all performed well. The most prominent role is that of Lemminkaïnen himself: Adrian Dwyer brought a fresh and clear tenor voice to the role, not afraid to open up on the high notes to bring the devil-may-care feel to proceedings. The most ear-catching of the female trio was Rebecca Afonwy-Jones when singing Louhi, Mistress of the North (who sends Lemminkaïnen on the various quests which will eventually prove the death of him), singing with a fine combination of sweetness and menace. But that’s just to mention two of six voices who were good to listen to either as their individual characters or when singing in ensemble.

© Richard Davenport
© Richard Davenport
But the Achilles heel of all opera is intelligibility of dialogue, which is all the more critical in an opera like Swanhunter aimed at children and where the audience finds out what’s happening from the characters telling stories to each other. And when it came to intelligibility, this production fell short. I was able to understand all the words for around the first 10-15 minutes of the opera, but there followed a passage, during Lemminkaïnen’s travels, where I started losing a lot of the words and, I noticed, the attention of various children in the audience began to wander.

Things were not helped by having a full drum kit as one of the six instruments. Without something to either amplify instruments like an accordion or harp or reduce the power of drum kit, decent balance was never going to be possible, and although there was some great percussion parts, they frequently came at the expense of everything else. I’d have liked to see a perspex screen in front of the drum kit to take its level down a bit.

When staging a story where animals play a prominent part, the bar has been set pretty high by productions like War Horse (and, in the operatic world, A Dog’s Heart). The puppetry in this production wasn’t bad, but it never came close to the utter suspension of disbelief that the best puppetry can achieve. I wasn’t accompanied by a child for this performance, but I have clear memories, from when my own children were small, of productions which mix puppets and people: this production was decent enough, but wasn’t up there with the deep magic that can be achieved by the best.

Swanhunter is a fine retelling of a wonderful yarn, and this performance contained a great deal to enjoy for an audience of all ages. This is the start of a big tour, and if Opera North are able to work a bit on sound balance and intelligibility, what’s currently a good family opera production might just turn into a great one.

***11