Tribuna Musical: Sibelius´ antihero “Kullervo” wins over botched Shakespeare

Tribuna Musical: sábado, febrero 20, 2016
Sibelius´ antihero “Kullervo” wins over botched Shakespeare
As readers know, I feel that curiosity about having new musical experiences is an essential quality of any music lover. And particularly if you are a critic: it defines whether you can be a practitioner of this risky career or not.

            That is why I chose two very dissimilar events; I liked one of them and was horrified by the other. I have long cherished the splendid recording of Sibelius´ «Kullervo» by the Helsinki Philharmonic conducted by Paavo Berglund,  a great artist that never came here.  And I have waited in vain for its première here.

            «Kullervo» is a big programmatic symphony in five movements lasting an hour and ten minutes about an antihero from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, «compiled and shaped by Elias Lönnrot in 1935 out of the oral tradition of Finnish folk verse;…it was a decisive factor in the process by which Finnish…moved from the status of a lowly ´dialect´ to become a language of culture» (Hannu-Ilari Lampila).

            The score was premièred in 1892 and its «gloomy, tragic ancient Finnish vision entranced the audience»; however, «Sibelius abruptly withdrew the piece;…permission to perform the work was granted only after the composer´s death». Time has shown that the composer was wrong: his symphony may have some youthful exaggeration but it is strong and inspired, a harbinger of what was to come.

            Sibelius´ fixation with the Kalevala would later produce masterpieces like «The Daugher of Pohjola» and the four Legends (Nº 2 is «The Swan of Tuonela»). The Kullervo story is terrible, he seduces his own sister without knowing it, she commits suicide, he kills his uncle in battle and later driven by remorse over incest he falls on his own sword.

            I think that the best way to present it is like a straight vocal-symphonic piece in concert, but to commemorate the 150 years of the composer´s birth the Finnish National Opera presented a ballet inspired by this story.  The very good DVD presentation at the open air Plaza Vaticano showed the splendid looks of the Opera´s hall and reminded me of the admirable current school of Finnish operatic composers such as Sallinen and Rautawaara.

            Frankly I didn´t care much for the choreography of Tero Saarinen, to my mind quite repetitive and too angular, but it was danced with much stamina and sense of drama by Samuli Poutanen (Kullervo), Terhi Räsänen (an attractive, muscular blonde) and David Scarantino (Kullervo´s friend Kimmo), plus members of both the Saarinen company and the Finnish National Ballet.  The show had interesting modern stage designs by Mikki Kunttu (and corresponding costumes by Erika Turunen) and I found really stunning the lighting of Kunttu, transfiguring the protagonist when he dies.

            The musical side was marvelous: Jukka-Pekka Saraste is along with Osmo Vänskä probably the greatest specialist in Sibelius, and he had a vibrant and technically perfect response from the Finnish National Opera Orchestra. The first two movements are purely orchestral but the gist of the score is the highly dramatic third with baritone and soprano solos (Kullervo and his sister) and the overwhelming male combined choruses: the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Finnish National Opera. The singers were of Wagnerian caliber: baritone Ville Rusanen and Johanna Rusanen-Kartano (are they siblings?) seemed ready for Wotan and Brünnhilde. The fifth movement, «Kullervo´s death», also had wonderful choral interventions. I went home elated and lamenting the lack of subtitles in the sung portions: the Kalevala texts are necessary and powerful.

            Henry Purcell was the greatest English Baroque composer ; «Dido and Aeneas» is his only legitimate opera but he wrote several semi-operas alternating spoken and musical passages and often confining them to diverting intermezzos rather than participating in the narration. Decades ago the Colón was the venue of excellent performances of «King Arthur» and «The Fairy Queen». The latter was presented now at the Festival Opera Tigre in a Delta island, repeating a production from last year, but in 2016 producer Michal Znaniecki added «The Tempest», as far as I know a première in Argentina.

            Both last year and this time I decided against reviewing «The Fairy Queen» for Purcell´s rich instrumental music is reduced to the absurd presence of an accordion and a bandoneon and I find it insulting. But the press advances said that there would be a small orchestra available conducted by Juan Casasbellas, a musician I respect. Also, that the Tigre productions would be adapted to be presented in the gardens of the Museo Larreta in our city. And so I decided to venture and went to «The Tempest»: grave mistake, for it was botched throughout.

            The culprit is Znaniecki: the audience was greeted for ten minutes with howls from that bestial being Caliban before he finally told the story of how Prospero had taken his island. And later on,  we were herded in the darkness in the direction of distant music  and there we had to tollerate the discordant trio of Caliban, Trinculus and Stephano. Later on we were trooped in disorder to the fourth and final place in the atrium of the museum, where half the public could barely see the proceedings (myself included).

            Partial saving graces: soprano Natalia Quiroga Romero (Miranda) and some orchestral passages (though the middling players took a long time to settle). My recomendation if you want to get to know the beautiful music: buy the Gardiner recording.

Tribuna Musical: Sibelius´ antihero “Kullervo” wins over botched Shakespeare

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