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Aulis Sallinen Kullervo
Libretto: Aulis Sallinen (derived from the epic Kalevala and from a play by Aleksis Kivi)

Jorma Hynninen, baritone (Kullervo)
Eeva-Liisa Saarinen, soprano (Mother)
Matti Salminen, bass (Kalervo)
Jorma Silvasti, tenor (Kimmo)
Finnish National Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Ulf Söderblom, conductor

ODE 780-3T (3 CD)

Acquired during a journey through Switzerland to attend the Musica Sacra International festival in Germany, the CDs of this two-act opera have prompted thoughts about how we all build our recorded opera collections. Great singers of the past are valued and their recordings treasured and reissued, some of them again and again. But what of the fate of operas which fail to enter the repertoire and fall by the wayside?

This superb premiere recording of Kullervo , made in Helsinki prior to the Los Angeles world premiere of 1992, was purchased for a derisory 2 Swiss franks (about 80p UK) remaindered in a job-lot sale in a small town Swiss record shop, less than the price of a cup of coffee! How it got there is something of a mystery. Originally it was released as a boxed set of three Ondine CDs, with comprehensive presentation in an illustrated booklet with essays and full texts with parallel translations - what has been the fate of this fourth of Sallinen's operas for its recording to end up there?

It caught my eye, reminding me that I first encountered the Kronos Quartet, shortly before they burst onto the world scene, at a recital of Sallinen string quartets, attended by about twenty people at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Aulis Sallinen (b.1935) has not really become established in UK; his The King Goes Forth to France was coolly received at Covent Garden and I did not enjoy it.

Kullervo, heard on the return journey from Marktoberdorf, impressed itself from the first scene of its stark and remorseless tragedy. The composer's libretto, based on the Kalevala epic and a play by Aleksis Kivi, is admirably compact and direct. It deals with family strife in a primitive and pagan world 'before there was any organized system of justice to keep a semblance of order'. The accursed anti-hero Kullervo had been an abused child 'rocked all wrongly' by foster parents; an outsider figure who reminded me of Britten's Grimes and Claggart.

The cast is Finnish and strong, headed by Jorma Hynninen (Kullervo), Matti Salminen (his father Kalervo)and Eeva-Lisa Saarinen as his mother, with a long list of other characters and an important role for a choir, commenting from the Kalevala itself as a Greek chorus. There is an interlude in which a Blind Singer recounts The Song of the Sister's Ravishing for a penny, in folk-style but with sophisticated jazz-influenced orchestral accompaniment; I guess that Ves-Matti Loiri, amplified juduciously for his scene, is a popular Finnish entertainer.

The music is powerful and accessible, and I found it all involving and moving; it is 'a good tale - characters like Kullervo are just as easily to be found on the streets of New York or Helsinki' (Pekka Hako). There are Christian references towards the end, with Timmo a wise fool who tells us never to give up hope even in the worst of times: There is not much time, but there is always a little time left - a stick broken in two, then again, gets shorter, but it never ends..... But by this time Timmo, Kullervo's childhood friend, has retreated into uncomprehending madness and is riding an imaginary hobby-horse, like the surviving child at the end of Wozzeck.  

Kullervo is deeply pessimistic and made a link for me with the underlying philosophy of Musica Sacra International; that in our present day world, beset by 'religious' conflict full of violence, pitiless institutionalised revenge and inhumanity, the meeting of individuals, seeking understanding and tolerance of their differences, can foster a small hope of living together in peace, whoever we are and wherever we come from.

I think Kullervo would be a very appealing opera for college revival, and ideally suitable for one of London's opera departments, such as the enterprising Guildhall School of Music and Drama, to mount a British premiere*?

The review journals keep us informed about new releases, but it is worth taking chances with reduced price displays in record shops; serendipity may be just around the corner!

*From the useful review in AmazonUK's website which follows, I learn that Kullervo indeed had a non-professional production in London, University College Opera 2002. There are several sound clips from the first scene of the recording reviewed here, which it appears is still available on order at c.£40.

"- - Sallinen's Kullervo epitomises the quality of Finland's contribution to opera in the second half of the 20th Century, and this CD stars some of its greatest talents, not least the brilliant Jorma Hynninen. Following the story of the cursed anti-hero, Kullervo, from the slaughter of his parents, through murder, incest and eventual immolation, Sallinen's music retains his own unique character with borrowings from Shostakovic, Britten and Orff. It moves seamlessly through primordial chanting, sexual longing, irrepressable anger, heart-breaking desparation, insanity and final rest. Having sung in the British Premiere of this wonderful opera last year (a much acclaimed production by University College Opera) this recording was an absolute inspiration and it cannot be recommended enough, not just to operatic 'train-spotters' but to mainstream opera-goers with the desire to hear something a bit different."



© Peter Grahame Woolf