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Ondine ODV4008
12 Oct 2011

Sallinen’s The Red Line at Finnish National Opera, 2008

Some opera masterworks are admirable more than lovable — a distinction usually best revealed by the number of performances the work gets.

Aulis Sallinen: The Red Line

Topi: Jorma Hynninen; Riika: Päivi Nisula; Sake: Tuomo Nisula; Raakeli: Sanni Vilmi; Iita-Linta Maria: Olivia Ainali; Puntarpää: Aki Alamikkotervo; Simana Arhippaini: Hannu Forsberg; Vicar: Pertti Mäkelä; Young Priest: Tuomas Tuloisela; Kaisa: Anna-Lisa Jakobsson; Raappana: Taisto Reimaluoto; Kunilla: Rea Mauranen; Epra: Ari Grönthal; Jussi: Marko Puustinen; Tiina: Leena Liimatainen; Constable Pirhonen: Kai Valtonen; Fate: Jarmo Rastas. Tsuumi Dance Company. Finnish National Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Mikko Franck, conductor. Pekka Milonoff, stage director. Eeva Ijäs, set design. Erika Turunen, costume design. Juha Westman, lighting design. Ari Numminen, choreographer. Recorded live from the Finnish National Opera, 2009.

Ondine ODV4008 [DVD]

$26.99  Click to buy

Wozzeck is widely admired, but the typical American opera company will program La Boheme every few seasons, and maybe once a decade stage Berg’s masterpiece.

Aulis Sallinen’s The Red Line prompts much admiration as well. Premiered in 1978, the work combines both serious subject matter and a score that expertly walks that fine line between hard-core modernism and more “accessible” material. It’s easy to see why the Finnish National Opera would stage a major revival in 2008 — not least because the source material (a novel of the same name by Ilmari Kanto) centers on a major episode from Finnish national history.

Topi is a peasant, in all senses of the word — a man at the lower socio-economic end, striving to provide for his family, with a fierce will but earthy weaknesses. He and his wife Rikka have three children, and in tough economic times, they are finding it hard to keep them properly fed. Soon word comes that the vote is coming, and not only for men — but also for women. Political agitators tout this development as the key to improving living conditions for men like Topi and their families. The vote is to be cast by marking a “red line” on a ballot. But Topi can’t wait for a vote — one child is ailing. He goes to the Church for help, but any assistance is too little, too late, and the child dies. At opera’s end, the side supposedly representing Topi’s interests has indeed won a major election, but it matters little to Topi. A bear that had threatened his livelihood at the beginning of the opera reappears, and Topi rashly rushes to chase it off — only to end up its victim, a “red line” drawn across his throat. And his widow is left to care for the remaining children.

The libretto manages to be a social and political tract without feeling heavy-handed, at least as staged by director Pekka Milonoff. Eeva Ijäs’s simple, effective sets and the naturalistic costumes of Erika Turunen provide a sense of time and place, and an expert cast performs with affecting simplicity and commitment. A hard-core Marxist would be displeased that Topi is not elevated to heroic stature, and a hard-core reactionary would bemoan the critical depictions of the Church and the established ruling class. Sympathy is aroused for its forlorn protagonist, but we can also see where his own choices have contributed to his predicament.

Despite many powerful moments, the narrative doesn’t build, and the bear sections are too crudely symbolic. Although not a long opera, the first act drags, and a more compact structure might have had greater impact.

Sallinen’s score has many remarkable passages, weaving folk material, marches, and arias into a complex fabric. Conductor Mikko Franck and the Finnish National Opera Orchestra keep the tension high, but the handsome hall must have fine acoustics, as the singers are never swamped.

Sallinen couldn’t hope for a better Topi than that of Jorma Hyannin — the hang-dog expression on his handsome face capturing a lifetime of deprivation and struggle, but the fire in his eyes is unquenched (until the end). Päiva Nisula is his wife, larger than one might expect in a story about poverty, but that actually corresponds to reality, in many cases. She is just this side of caricature — hearty and strong, loving of her husband but prone to nagging. In a large supporting cast, Aki Alamikkotervo’s Agitator stands out for capturing the tunnel-visioned fervor of a politically driven man.

Ondine provides four separate filmed interviews as bonus features — with the composer, director, conductor, and star. Technically austere, the interviews don’t cover much interesting territory, with the exception of that with composer Sallinen. He is mordant and perceptive, and your reviewer will probably never forget one choice phrase of his, a reference to “man’s bottomless narcissism.”

The Red Line, some three decades on, does not look poised to join the standard opera repertory, but Sallinen is most fortunate to have this document for posterity, a recording of a fine performance of his admirable — if not exactly loveable — opera.

Chris Mullins

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