According to Wikipedia, Finland boasts the world’s northernmost motorway, metro station, Irish pub, vineyard – and surviving stone-built medieval castle. The three-towered Olavinlinna Castle, in the Saimaa lake region in the south-west of the country, is familiar to music lovers as home to the famous opera festival of Savonlinna. The festival has been going since 1912, and if one conveniently ignores a dormancy of 50 years between 1917 and 1967, means it is older than Finland itself as an independent nation. That particular landmark is being celebrated across the country in 2017 to mark the momentous events a century ago when Finland finally gained its freedom from Russian rule following the October Revolution. Savonlinna’s contribution to the centenary has been to commission a new work from the country’s senior operatic composer, Aulis Sallinen. Not an opera per se in this case, but what he describes as a “chronicle for speaker, four singers, orchestra and Olavinlinna”.
Olavinlinna, or St Olaf’s Castle, was built between 1475 and 1495 by the ruling Swedes to defend their newly established border with the Russian Novgorod Republic, and has seen its fair share of dramatic history. Some of that history was recalled in Sallinen’s first opera, The Horseman, written to celebrate the castle’s 500th anniversary in 1975 and generally accepted as the piece that marked the beginning of Finland’s modern-day run of operatic good fortune. The composer has since become a fixture at Savonlinna. The Red Line (Punainen viiva) was performed at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in 1982 and 1983 and two more of his operas were premiered there, The King Goes Forth to France, co-commissioned with Covent Garden in the 1980s, and The Palace (1995). And the festival’s 2014 production of his opera Kullervo, written for the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki and based on the story from the Finnish national epic, the Kalavala, that also inspired Sibelius’ early cantata of the same name, is being revived this year alongside his new work.
Also for that 1975 anniversary of Olavinlinna, the Finnish poet Lassi Nummi (1928-2012) wrote The Castle in the Water, a short text that was later expanded into a book-length collection of poetry, from which Sallinen has now chosen a selection to make up the libretto of his latest work, his ‘chronicle’ of the same title. “I have always felt very close to the poetry of Lassi Nummi,” the composer says. “His way of writing is richly poetic, musical, narrative and concentrated.”
Nummi and Sallinen’s The Castle in the Water tells the story of Olavinlinna through the fictionalised recollections of some of the characters for whom it was home, prison or protector, roles taken on in the chronicle by the narrator and four soloists. Among them there’s the castle’s founder, Swedish knight Erik Axelsson Tott; the lamenting Savonian woman whose husband was killed in its construction; German mercenary Colonel Joachim Mitzloff, who managed to escape imprisonment and fled to his homeland; and Danish margrave Eric Tureson Bielke, who exchanged war with Moscow for trade. Prefacing these portraits is a poetic description of the unspoiled natural environment before man’s arrival on the scene, and the work ends with the observation that the castle has now become part of the natural landscape, as free as the deer in the vast Finnish forests. As the four singers intone at the beginning of the twelfth and final movement:
Today the castle is an old man sitting on a rock,
time around him has stopped.
Like a king who has abdicated the throne,
once so stern, so sullen and ardent.*
“The castle is portrayed on the textual level,” Sallinen explains, “not in music, with one exception: there are ten pre-recorded sections, which will be played through the loudspeakers. There, I hope, the castle and its acoustical space and possibilities will come out.”
The Castle in the Water, then, has initially been conceived as a concert work and a kind of sister to The Barabbas Dialogues, an earlier setting of Nummi’s texts. “I never thought that could be staged,” Sallinen admits, “but the Frankfurt Opera made a chamber opera version of it some years ago. So, let us see what happens with The Castle.” Nor is it really a direct successor to The Horseman (its only connection, says Sallinen, is use of “the same pencil”), which dealt with one specific period in Olavinlinna’s history. Instead, the new work “tells of the history of the Olavinlinna castle and at the same time of the ancient history of our country. With the 100-year anniversary of the independence of Finland, we felt it fits well together with Olavinlinna: we know what fortresses have meant to the past history of nations.”
In recent decades, a tradition has grown up of performing works of art in the places that inspired them – from Tosca in Rome to Rigoletto in Mantua, for instance – but there can be few examples where the venue takes on quite as important a role, as both subject and lead character, as The Castle in the Water.
Aulis Sallinen’s The Castle in the Water Op.106 premieres at the Savonlinna Opera Festival on 8 July 2017.
*English translation of the libretto by David Hackston
Article sponsored by Savonlinna Opera Festival.