The House of the Sun
Einojuhani Rautavaara, music and libretto
Oulu Symphony orchestra
Mikko Franck, conductor
The recording company Ondine, based in Helsinki, has built itself an international reputation, at least arguably, by dedicating itself to the works of Einojuhani Rautavaara. Rautavaara's music is unclassifiable, beyond saying that it is the music of Rautavaara. Thoroughly schooled in contemporary compositional techniques, he has developed a lyrical approach of eerie beauty. Perhaps his best-known work, Cantus Arcticus, may serve as representative. A concerto for "birds and orchestra," it weaves tapes of arctic bird cries with an orchestral fabric of cool, smooth texture. The result draws the listener into a world both recognizable and alien. Besides a premiere on Ondine, that piece has also been recorded on the BIS label and on Naxos, the latter a fine version at budget price.
Rautavaara has not ignored opera, and in 1990 he composed The House of the Sun, which he subtitled a tragedia buffa. The CD booklet features a well-written essay by the composer on the creation of his opera. The inspiration for the libretto came from a tragic but bizarre news story: two older ladies were found frozen to death in their trash-filled home. Daughters of a family that had fled the Russian revolution, they had never integrated into Finnish society, and once they could no longer afford servants, they simply shut themselves away until death claimed them.
The libretto makes use of a time-honored flashback technique, as we see the sisters in their old age first and then learn their story through their hallucinations and reveries. Misbegotten romance, political disruption, family tragedy — all flash by, as unwelcome visitors from the "real" world intrude into the increasingly addled ladies' lives.
Many a contemporary opera has been built on such slender narrative. Think of Katia Saaraiho's recent L'Amour de loin, a Tristan und Isolde-inspired work in which two would-be lovers correspond, agree to meet, and at the end of one's journey to the other, the traveler dies. Perhaps composers feel that new opera must avoid the event-packed melodrama of the standard repertory, or just as likely, since much of contemporary composition builds itself up from small fragments through minute development, only such a story will serve.
Whatever the reason, each opera must be judged on its own terms, and The House of the Sun makes for compelling, even moving listening. The sisters, as lost children of a dead world, can symbolize the ideals of Western civilization, pathetically neglected and out of place in a contemporary world, represented in the opera by lawyers, bankers, and social welfare workers.
However, Rautavaara's classification of the opera as a tragedia buffa must be recalled. Sad as they are, the sisters remain somewhat foolish creatures who engineered their pathetic fate by refusing to adapt to new surroundings. When two young men, brought to the home to help the ladies out, take advantage of the ladies' obliviousness to steal a precious egg, they also, out of sheer random cruelty, shut off the electricity. The ladies cannot fathom how to turn it back on, and settle down into their hallucinations of their deceased family members, who remind me that "nothing [is] really, really real."
Despite techniques familiar from many contemporary scores, such as bursts of aggressive percussion, a haunting lyrical mood dominates. Without strong melodic content, the music still manages to convey a lost world of beauty and grace, and a long duet for the sisters in act one, over nostalgic strings, is masterfully conceived.
The stage-worthiness of the opera may be questionable, but as a vehicle for female voices, surely a smaller company could find it worthwhile. On this recording Anna-Kristina Kaappola and Raija Regnell's voices blend beautifully as the older sisters, and their younger selves are sung by Mia Huhta and Helena Juntunen. Male voices tend to the gruff, fitting the characters, and Mikko Franck leads the Oulu Symphony Orchestra with requisite force and sensitivity.
Rautavaara's libretto is as skillful as his music. Under 90 minutes long, the opera as recorded conveys the sad, monotonous life of the sisters without being static itself. When the final visitor knocks portentously on the door as the sisters slip away, listeners may feel that a whole world, slightly ridiculous and yet deeply beautiful, has slipped off to its eternal rest, leaving nothing but a world of commerce and bureaucracy.
One may even be inspired to turn off the electricity and join the sisters in proclaiming that nothing is really, really real — but have some batteries for the CD Walkman handy, so that Rautavaara's The House of the Sun can serve as a morbid soundtrack.