HELSINKI — KULLERVO,'' the opera commissioned for the opening of the new opera house in Helsinki, is a grim and grisly tale that involves murder, arson, rape, patricide, thievery, suicide, incest, and insanity.
This bitter saga of pagan times chronicles the strife between the brothers Kalervo (Kullervo's father) and his brother, Unto, a story that culminates in the complete destruction, except for Kullervo, of both families by either fire or suicide.
Composer Aulis Sallinen devised the libretto from the national folk epic ``Kalevala'' and from the folk drama ``Kullervo,'' by playwright Aleksis Kivi (1834-72).
Sallinen's powerful and colorful score is a challenge to the stage director. The work is more dramatic oratorio than opera. Since the story line of ``Kullervo'' moves back and forth in time and its text involves very little interactive dialogue, director Kolle Holmberg had to rely principally on postured crossings, defiant gestures, and heroic poses for his action on stage.
Sallinen's musical palette is eclectic. Act I begins with the men's chorus on stage chanting in the fashion of ancient Greek tragedy. In contrast, the long opening scene of Act II was spoken rather than sung.
Both Kullervo and his only friend, Kimmo, have highly lyrical and poignant scenes throughout the opera. There is also a singer who appears with microphone in hand (the popular Finnish cabaret comedian and vocalist Vesa-Matti Loiri, in this instance) who retells as a twice-told tale the story of the opera in a long, pop-style ballad in the minor mode.
Sallinen cleverly employs other musical devices. Jazzy syncopations accompany the irregular movements of a drunken thief and his two inebriated friends as they stagger across the square, while the rhythmic clippety-clops of Chinese temple blocks in the pit suggest the hoof-beats of the wooden horse Kimmo is creating on stage.
There is a persuasively melodic cast to the music as the Smith's young wife sings of love, while the lament given to Kullervo's mother is embroidered with deep gold colors.
Baritone Jorma Hynninen was tremendously impressive as Kullervo, his portrayal of this tragic character eminently sensitive and musical. He was wonderfully supported by Jorma Silvasti as Kimmo; the tenor's strong voice was at once rich and bright.
While the men in the cast all had powerful, resonant voices, the women - with the exception of Satu Vihavainen, who played Kullervo's sister - lacked the power to project over the large orchestra or to balance the men's voices on stage. The superb musical direction was by Ulf Soderblom.
To assist its international audience, the Finnish text of the opera was projected in English above the stage. For those interested, an original-cast album of Kullervo is available on the Ondine label (780-3T).