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Finland: A courtly night at the opera

By Kitty McKinseyContributor / June 19, 2009

Olavinlinna stages a yearly summer opera festival.

Courtesy of Savonlinna Opera Festival

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A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

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SAVONLINNA, FINLAND – The world offers many spectacular venues for grand opera. The Roman theater in Verona comes to mind, or the one-off performance of “Aida” in the 3,500-year-old Pharaonic Temple of Luxor, Egypt, with Placido Domingo in 1987.

But for sheer drama before the first note is sung, it’s tough to top medieval Olavinlinna Castle in Finland’s lake district.

Jutting straight up out of the craggy bedrock of a tiny island, Olavinlinna (St. Olaf’s Castle) is a brooding, impressive presence that in its day represented the peak of castle design in the whole Baltic Sea region.

The great courtyard of the three-tiered castle, which dates back to 1475, is converted every summer into a 2,257-seat covered auditorium for a month-long opera festival that features productions from the classic Italian, French, and German repertoire as well as occasional modern Finnish premières with world-renowned singers.

The peaceful, pristine, teal waters of Lake Saimaa and breathtakingly beautiful islands of pine, spruce, and birch trees surround the island fortress. The town of Savonlinna, with fewer than 28,000 residents, is charming in its own right, but the opera festival is the real reason to come here in July.

This close to the Arctic Circle, the sun is still high in the sky as men and women in evening dress make their way slowly down cobblestone streets and over a long wooden pontoon bridge linking Olavinlinna with the town for the 7:30 p.m. opera performances.

The acoustics are wonderful, but it may be the only opera house in the world where Rigoletto’s vows of revenge are punctuated by the raucous cries of seagulls.

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