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S & H Gala Review

Finnish National Opera House: 10th Anniversary Gala Evening, 31st December 2003 (BK)


Cats should be let out of bags at some time, I suppose. Twenty five years ago, the only Finnish musicians widely known in the UK were probably Berglund and Talvela, and after seven years or so going to Finland, I still feel slightly smug that Finnish National Opera and Ballet remains one of the better kept secrets of the musical world. Though Finnish musicians are household names these days, relatively few foreigners take the trouble to visit them at home. They should try it; there’s more musical quality in Finland than most of us know about, and many fine composers other than Sibelius. This Gala to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the new opera house showed off the quality nicely.

Opera came late to Finland. The earliest amateur performance known was Il Barbiere di Siviglia given in 1849 and the first home-grown Finnish opera, The Hunt of King Charles (Kung Karls Jakt) was written by Fredrik Pacius to a Swedish libretto by Zachris Topelius and premiered in 1852. A short lived professional company called Finnish Opera formed in 1873 but collapsed six years later and no opera was written in the Finnish language until 1908 when Oscar Merikanto’s Pohjan Neiti (The Maid of the North) was performed for the first time.

A permanent Finnish Opera with its own theatre, did not emerge properly until Finland gained independence from Russia in 1914. From then onwards, professional performances of opera began to take place regularly, producing new works in Finnish by composers like Armas Launis, Väinö Raitio, Aare Merikanto and Leevi Madetoja both of whom wrote operas called Juha. Merikanto’s version of Juha was thought to be too modern and difficult to perform when it was written in 1921, but was subsequently staged after the composer’s death most recently at the Savonlinna Opera Festival last year to great acclaim. Madetoja’s Pohjolaisia (The Ostrobothnians) written in 1924 remains one of the most successful Finnish operas ever.

Finnish National Opera was formed in 1956 and acquired its own orchestra in 1963, having relied previously on the Helsinki Philharmonic. With the onset of a boom in Finnish opera from the 1970s onwards, FNO commissioned and staged many works by Sallinen, Kokkonen, Rautavaara and Kalevi Aho. Somewhat lesser known names outside of Finland whose works were also commissioned are those of Ilkka Kuusisto, Paavo Heininen and Erik Bergman. FNO continues this tradition with an intention to produce at least one new Finnish opera each year, under the guidance of it current General Director Erkki Korhonen who is himself a distinguished pianist and conductor.

Finnish National Ballet has an equally honourable history. It was first formed in 1922 with only 24 dancers but like the Opera was consolidated in the 1950s and has grown in both size and stature ever since. Until the 50s choreographers came mainly from Russia but the Ballet prides itself on developing Finnish artists these days. The company has a successful and well founded international reputation and has toured both Latin America and China as well as much of Europe. Its current Director is Dinna Bjørn.

It was clear from the 1970s that a new home for opera and ballet was needed in Helsinki. The Alexander Theatre, which had housed the companies previously, was too small and lacked the technology needed for modern productions. A site was procured on Töölönlahti Bay, in parkland close to the city centre, and a design competition for the new house was won by architects Eero Hyvämäki, Jukka Karhunen and Risto Parkkinen. Construction began in 1987 and the building was completed in 1993. The house holds about 1300 people in its main auditorium and has a more compact theatre, the Almi Hall, attached for smaller scale performances. It is a beautiful building with good spacious seating, a fine acoustic, well-organised bars, restaurant and cloakroom facilities and all the modern stage equipment necessary for large scale productions. It is nearby to several comfortable hotels and has probably the most efficient taxi finding service anywhere in the world. Its prices are decidedly cheap by UK standards.

The gala itself was designed to present the international aspects of the house’s achievements. Notable operatic events in the past year or so have included rarities from Rossini and Puccini, a fine Ring cycle, Boris Godounov, Sallinen’s King Lear, The Death of Klinghoffer and Rautavaara’s Rasputin as well as more standard repertoire. The ballet programme has been equally adventurous. Reasonably enough, the gala programme concentrated on more conservative aspects of recent repertoire however.

Introduced in a mixture of Finnish and English by Erkki Korhonen and Dinna Bjørn and conducted throughout by Muhai Tang, Chief Conductor for FNO since last January, the first half contained excerpts from Carmen (opera and ballet), Minkus’s Don Quijote, Don Giovanni, Sleeping Beauty, The Barber of Seville, Anna Bolena, Raymonda, Die Walküre, Boris Godounov and a composite ballet called Etudes with music by Czerny and several others. A bonus item was the inclusion at the last minute of Matti Salminen singing the Siberia Monologue from Rautavaara’s Rasputin.

There was more of the same in the second half. We had Dance Macabre, Petrushka, Tosca, La Fanciulla del West, La Rondine, Swan Lake, more Sleeping Beauty, Cenerentola / Cinderella (opera and ballet) Il Viaggio a Reims, Il Trovatore and a grand finale offering a conflation of La Traviata and Die Fledermaus. High jinks all round by that time of course, since it was New Year’s Eve.

Although I am generally opposed to ‘bleeding chunks’ of opera and am also prodigiously ignorant about ballet, I enjoyed this gala immensely. Of the ballets, I particularly liked the Shchedrin Carmen excerpts, very fluidly danced by Kare Lansivuori and Nina Hyvärinen, Petrushka with Milla Eloranta, Alberto Morino and Henrik Burman and the Hungarian Dance from Raymonda. The welding together of ballet and opera in Carmen, Cenerentola / Cinderella and in Traviata was also slickly done.

Matti Salminen showed off all his versatility with Rossini’s La Calunnia, the Coronation scene from Boris and the Rautavaara Siberia Monologue. ‘Kuningas Basso’ they call him in Finland and King of the Basses he may very well be: on the strength of his Siberia Monologue, Rasputin is a must-see work if it is ever revived.

Other highlights were Lilli Paasikivi with  Nacqui all’ affanno from Cenerentola, Raimo Sirkiä with Ch’ella mi creda from La Fanciulla, the FNO chorus in Boris and Anna Bolena and the fourteen contributors to the Gran Pezzo Concertato from Il Viaggio a Reims. All amazing stuff and with New Year fireworks over the lake to follow, a tremendous ending to 2003.

The New Year promises to be another good one for FNO and includes two complete Ring cycles in August and September. Details of both the opera and ballet programmes can be found on the English pages of the FNO web site at

Bill Kenny

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