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Recordings

Aleksis Kivi
13 Aug 2011

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Aleksis Kivi

Great characters are at the center of all operatic masterpieces, yet opera almost never treads into “operatic biography” territory.

Einojuhani Rautavvara: Aleksis Kivi

Aleksis Kivi: Jorma Hynninen; August Ahlqvist: Janne Reinikainen; Charlotta: Riikka Rantanen; Hilda: Paulina Linnosaari. Finnish National Opera Orchestra. Conductor: Mikko Franck.

Ondine ODV4009 [DVD]

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Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Aleksis Kivi, which premiered in 1997, ventures there, as it puts on stage the story of Finland’s 19th century literary hero. Kivi used the vernacular to tell stories of greater realism than the prevailing Romantic tradition, and while he found enough success to keep his works alive, he also encountered a great deal of derision and suppression from the literary establishment. He also had to struggle against his own demons, especially alcoholism fueled by mental illness, to which he succumbed at the early age of 38.

Although the composer’s booklet note (translated by Andrew Bentley) refers to Kivi’s “eventful life,” the 90-minute opera doesn’t concern itself with narrative in any conventional sense. There is a double for Kivi at a young age, and a key female figure, Charlotta, who may have been a romantic interest (although this is far from clear). The core of any dramatic impetus comes from the intractable hatred of Kivi’s nemesis, critic August Ahlqvist. In a daring move that pays big dividends, Rautavaara makes this a speaking role, with acerbic music underscoring the character’s venomous railings. However, no progression follows the establishment of Ahlqvist’s disdain in the opening scenes — he hates and ridicules Kivi until opera’s end, with only a brief comic respite when Ahlqvist brings out the legendary writer Runeberg, initially confined to a wheelchair. Soon this supposedly respectable literary master is scampering around the stage in a fit of dementia, with Ahlqvist in chase. The humorous respite precedes the touching climax, where the schizophrenic Kivi, in the final moments of his life, revisits Charlotta and even his younger self, finding solace in the conviction that what he created will live on.

This Ondine DVD of a 2010 staging is directed by Pekka Milonoff, although the true guiding hand of this film, caught by cameras without an audience, belongs to TV director Hannu Kamppila. A captivating cast holds the attention that otherwise might lose interest in set designer Eeva Ijäs’s sparse set. Dominating with both the conviction of his acting and the handsome colors of his voice is baritone Jorma Hynninen as Kivi. He looks older than the 38 Kivi was at death, but he captures the haunted appearance of a man caught between the ecstasy of his creative urge and the pain of the mental illness and abuse of alcohol that consumed him. There is little interaction between Kivi and Ahlqvist, as there is truly no ground for them to share. Janne Reinikainen gives a bold performance as the deluded Ahlqvist, who believes he is protecting Finland reputation. Both sinister and ridiculous, he is a fine villain.

A twenty-minute bonus feature on the making of the film features the composer’s thoughts, delivered in a somewhat scary hoarse whisper, as well as interviews with Hynninen and conductor Mikko Franck. Franck’s appearance — cherubic would be polite — and his relaxed interplay with his excellent musicians shows that the tradition of the frightening, dictatorial conductor is as dead as the literature of Runeberg.

Rautavaara’s score will please those who know and respect his music — a mixture of modernistic textures with tonal underpinnings that, though never conventionally melodic, has affecting strength. At 90 minutes, Aleksis Kivi makes a good introduction to Rautavaara’s operatic efforts, but a release from a couple of years ago of Rasputin, with the titanic Matti Salminen in the title role, would be your reviewer’s choice for the best place to start.

Chris Mullins

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