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Culture news
The singing festival
07.22.2005 15:22

savonlinna_opera_festival Finalnd's Savonlinna Opera Festival, one of the oldest in Europe, running until Aug. 7, opened earlier this month with an opera set in the ancient Russian capital Veliky Novgorod, 300 kilometers south of St. Petersburg.

"Set in a land of forests, the opera tells about complicated human relationships and confrontations between people and regimes, from slavery right up to the league of free nations dwelling in the forest," said librettist Paavo Haavikko of the opera, "The Horseman," which he created with composer Aulis Sallinen. "Dream and reality, historical truth and fictitious events interweave in music, poetry and emotion."

The tale takes place 500 years ago and begins in the house of a Novgorod merchant, where horseman Antti and his wife Anne are serving their master. The story begins with a peculiar twist: Anne spends a night with the master, while the master's wife humiliates Antti by sending him to go round the city looking for a maiden, dressed as a bear.

"The Horseman," performed five times during the month-long festival, will next be performed on Wednesday.

Olavinlinna, a romantic medieval castle, has hosted the Savonlinna Opera Festival since 1912. Verdi's "Aida," Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann," Puccini's "Turandot," Jaakko Kuusisto's "The Canine Kalevala" and a series of vocal recitals of Finland's most distinguished musicians such as bass Matti Salminen and tenor Juuso Hemminki are part of the program this year.

Initially called a "Singing Festival," the Savonlinna Opera Festival was established by renowned Finnish soprano Aino Ackte, who first encountered the castle in 1907 when she attended a patriotic meeting there. The singer's trained ear immediately recognized the tremendous potential of the romantic, excellently preserved castle - in both atmospheric and acoustic terms.

Ackte's original brainchild, however, didn't survive World War I. In 1967, however, the festival was revived as the Savonlinna Music Days festival.

Now, the one-month-long festival is a prestigious European musical event, showcasing fresh interpretations of operatic jewels, such as Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," as well as unveiling contemporary Finnish classical music.

At the beginning of the 20th century, when Finland formed part of the Russian Empire, many Finnish musicians studied at St. Petersburg's Rimsky-Korsakov conservatory. That process is now happening in reverse, with many Russian musicians touring Finland - conducting operas, appearing at many different festivals and even staging opera and ballet performances.

The town of Savonlinna, noted for its spa and peaceful scenery, was a popular resort among wealthy Russians before the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917. Russians are, once again, waking up to the lake region's treasures.

Moscow's Bolshoi Theater launched its own event in the Olavinlinna castle three years ago: during the first week of June, Muscovites come to the shores of Lake Saimaa for an annual ballet fiesta, showcasing their most acclaimed productions.

More and more Russians spectators are attending Finland's musical events.

Valery Gergiev, the artistic director of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater, often praises the Savonlinna Festival. The maestro has admitted that magical opera performances in Olavinlinna castle inspired him to stage shows in historical castles and monasteries on the outskirts of St. Petersburg including at Vyborg Castle, the Ivangorod Fortress and the Uspensky Monastery in Tikhvin.

Visually, the Mariinsky shows have been hugely successful yet the poor acoustics at the locales has sometimes damaged the performances. During the performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Tale of the Invisible City of Kitezh" in Tikhvin, last year, the artists even had to use microphones. The weather sometimes leads to cancellations of shows because the impromptu stages are built in the open air.

But outdoor opera is staged with a touch more technical sophistaication at Savonlinna where organizers are proud of commendable acoustics.

A courtyard-turned-hall, accommodating 2,200 people, is covered by a moveable plastic roof first installed in 1987. Not only does it protect audiences from intrusive mosquitoes but plays a key role in the venue's amazing acoustics.

Paavo Suokko, the festival's senior adviser, said the roof cost 2.5 million euros to build, and an additional 300,000 euros is spent every spring to re-mount it after a winter break.

"The echo in the hall is 1.8 seconds, which is ideal for opera, and we are very proud of the acoustics," Suokko said. "The words can be distinguished very well from any seat."

The only dramatic accident with the roof so far happened, ironically, when Mariinsky musicians were performing.

The roof collapsed during heavy rain, showering the Russian performers with a mighty waterfall.

The fortress was founded in 1475 by a Danish knight Eik Axelsson Tott, and takes its name from St. Olav, the castle's patron saint. On St. Olav's Day next Friday, July 29, entrance is free to the castle - but be warned, it gets very crowded.

The castle was built in a strategic location to protect the the Swedish-Danish union from Slavic principalities.

But throughout its history the fortress changed hands several times, first to Russians in 1714 when it was conquered by the army of Peter the Great, less than 10 years after the tsar founded St. Petersburg.

The Russians added much to the castle including several bastions and one fort, named after renowned commander Alexander Suvorov, who served there for about two years in late 18th century. Since 1973 the castle has been connected to the mainland by a pontoon bridge; before then it could only be reached by boat and was well protected.

"Even a frog couldn't jump into this castle," Field Marshall Suvorov said of Olavinlinna.

These days the Suvorov bastion serves as a dressing room for performers at the opera festival which now brings fame to the castle, and audiences are not allowed to enter it.

The festival welcomes up to 60,000 opera lovers each year. About 80 percent are Finns but the event is quickly gaining international recognition. People speaking German, English, French, Italian and Russian can be heard during the intermission.

The festival's symphony orchestra, assembled from the country's finest musicians, does some touring outside the festival, which also helps to establish contacts with other companies.

The festival mixes home-grown talent and guest performances. Traditionally, the last week of the festival is dedicated to performances by visiting theater troupes. The festival also collaborates closely with tourist agencies to offer budget-price packages for visitors. This has made the festival financially successful and provided funds to invite some top directors to stage performances and even premieres of new Finnish operas.

A festival highlight this year is Jaakko Kuusisto's "The Canine Kalevala," sung in Finnish. First premiered last year, the comic, tongue-in-cheek opera, transforms Finnish epic the Kalevala into a cheerful event about pooches, mutts and hounds. It has immediately become an audience favorite.

"Long, long ago, when the world was still young, far away in the land of the Kalevala there lived a free and untamed tribe of dogs," reads the libretto. "Their neighbors in the dark northern regions of Pohjola were a band of wild and wicked wolves. The land between them was inhabited by a covey of cunning cats. The dogs and the wolves vied for the rule of the forests, and heated skirmishes sometimes broke out between them."

"Every year we have a guest company, which brings over both their national operas and works from the classical operatic repertoire," said Jukka Pohjolainen, marketing director of the Savonlinna Opera Festival.

The Mariinsky Theater performed here in 1995 and 1996, while last year the festival hosted the Latvian National Opera. Latvia joined the European Union last year, and this invitation was a welcome gesture on behalf of EU-member state Finland.

This year, the guest company is Gran teatre de Liceu (the Barcelona Opera House). The renowned Spanish troupe will be performing Donizetti's "L'elisir d'amoure" and presenting a "Spanish concert night: Granados: Goyescas and the Best of Zarzuelan" from Aug. 2 until Aug. 6.

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