'Ooppera' speaks to the people; The Finns are coming! A first for the Met
| New York
In the midst of the festivities around ''Britain Salutes New York 1983'' comes something from another part of Europe, yet altogether different, and it's called ''Ooppera'' (pronounced ''oohh'-pe-rah'').
More specifically, the Finnish National Opera is coming here for four performances of two operas and a Sibelius evening. This is a multiply historic event. First, the Metropolitan Opera has never before brought another opera company to perform in its home. It is the first United States visit of a company that has risen to prominence in a short time as a proponent of new works rather than old. It is also the first time a Finnish opera will have been performed professionally on US shores.
One would hardly think of Finland as an operatic haven, although two important basses - Martti Talvela and Matti Salminen - hail from there, and the European houses are full of Finnish singers who, in fact, can't work at home because their own national company is too small.
The Finnish company resides in an intimate theater the Russians built in 1879 to house anything but opera. Its limitations have dictated the look and size of productions and works produced. General manager Juhani Raiskinen noted at a recent press conference that the company has been wanting a new opera house in Finland for years, but could not get one without proving it needed it.
In his pithy words: ''How to get it? Show we're good! How to be good? Perform something nobody else does.''
With no wing space, he wryly observed that they would not be staging a ''Ring ,'' but rather something approaching anti-opera. So what to do? Commission works! The Ooppera now performs 80 Finnish operas (new and old), nine of them commissioned in the past decade. The two most acclaimed - Joonas Kokkonen's ''The Last Temptations'' and Aulis Sallinen's ''The Red Line'' - are being seen at the Met this week through Saturday. (Tonight is the US premiere of ''The Red Line,'' tomorrow night an all-Sibelius concert, Friday night the second performance of ''The Last Temptations,'' and, finally, Saturday evening, the second and final performance of ''The Red Line.'')
Mr. Raiskinen noted that Sibelius had been a negative influence on Finnish music - two generations of composers were determined to write anti-Sibelian music. Only recently have composers realized that melody is not necessarily an evil thing, and New York operagoers will certainly discover that both works are eminently accessible. They will also discover that Kokkonen and particularly Sallinen are not afraid to use contemporary techniques to make their musical-dramatic points.
The nine operas were commissioned for a specific company with specific singers - top to bottom. The two works to be seen are based on Finnish historical events. ''The Last Temptations'' is about a backwoods revivalist minister, ''The Red Line'' about the first national elections, in 1907. They are , clearly, not Wagnerian in scope. Rather, they focus on several key characters and develop them thoroughly. Even the incidental characters have their own identities.
Kokkonen's ''Temptations'' is the more immediately accessible of the two works. Unfolding as something of a flashback, the plot has a dying minister, Paavo Ruotsalainen, recall, with the help of his late first wife, key scenes of his life from the perspective of hindsight. There are several fine arias for the principals, and ensemble scenes are now uproarious, now heartrending, now angry, now brooding. The musical idiom - as heard on a specially imported DG set (2740 190, imported by the German News Company) - is richly traditional, with a strong sense of the narrative force of music, a good ear for melody, and a fine folk-idiom feel to the score.
''Red Line,'' by Sallinen, is equally ''intimate'' but far grayer in tone, far more demanding of the listener. (It can be heard on Finlandia Records FA - 102-LP3, available in most import stores.) The story tells of a desperately poor pioneer family in 1907 promised a new way of life after the national elections. The family does not live to see the promises fulfilled.
Sallinen demands more of his listener. The music bears fruit only to the patient. His is basically a tonal language that acknowledges all the advancements in music without actually relying on them to excess. The composer's own severe libretto tells its tale unrelentingly. It is not so much a story as a study - pages and pages of protracted, introspective monologue and dialogue set to music that refuses to dip into the obvious or the easy. It is only as the opera develops that the listener begins to feel the effect of all the meticulous groundwork Sallinen lays early on.
Granted, I was listening to these works by recording with a libretto in front of me, so I could follow the words specifically. In the darkened theater, with sets and a company that is acclaimed for its acting abilities, the impact will be utterly different. The one common thread in reports about the Finns and their Ooppera is that the language barrier is transcended. Both operas are appealing. Both have dramatic impact. Both speak to specific Finnish and universal issues at the same time, which is why they seem able to speak to an entire world.
Met officials estimate the total expenses for the five nights with the Finns will be $500,000. The Met is risking a tremendous amount of money in this unprecedented venture. In the course of the press conference, Mr. Raiskinen noted that since its world premiere in 1975, ''The Last Temptations'' has had 200 performances, and ''The Red Line'' (premiered in '78) has already logged 100 .
These are astounding figures for contemporary operas. New operas in Europe rarely get more than a handful of hearings before falling into oblivion. Not so in Finland, evidently. The Finns love their Ooppera, they support it, and clearly, it speaks directly to people. So while the venture is risky, it promises to be something unique in the fullest sense of the word.