Rautavaara’s “Aleksis Kivi”

ODE 1000-2D cover

RAUTAVAARA: Aleksis Kivi / Jorma Hynninen, bar (Aleksis Kivi); Lasse Pöysti, spkr (August Ahlqvist); Eeva-Liisa Saarinen. mezzo (Charlotta); Helena Juntunen, sop (Hilda); Gabriel Suovanen, bar (Young Alexis); Marcus Groth, bs (J.L. Runeberg); Lassi Virtanen, ten (Mikko Vilkastus); Jaakko Hietikko (Uncle Sakeri); Jyväskylä Sinfonia Markus Lehtinen, cond / Ondine ODE 1000-2D

This is the story of an artistic idea, given to the composer by the principal singer in the cast, which was then developed and expanded on for two years until it became a finished masterpiece, yet this masterpiece has no home today except sporadically in his home country of Finland.

It is a three-act opera based on the life of that country’s greatest author, poet and playwright, Aleksis Kivi (1834-1872), who was the Finnish equivalent of Johann Goethe, Alexander Pushkin and Anton Chekhov rolled into one. The problem is that, unlike those other three writers, Kivi is barely known outside his native country, and since the opera is not an action plot but a psychological drama depicting his struggles for acceptance and eventual success followed by his rapid decline (Kivi went mad and died in an asylum at the age of 38), it doesn’t so much lack for drama as it lacks for action. His role must be played by a baritone with an outstanding voice and far-above-average acting skills, and its success or failure onstage cannot be covered over with moronic and irrelevant “Regietheater” staging filled with naked nuns and insane people. And yet it deserves survival if for no other reason than that it contains some of Rautavaara’s most hauntingly beautiful and inspired music.

To summarize the plot as best I can, there is a prologue showing Kivi at the end of his life, visited by a Professor of literature, August Ahlqvist, who berates him for his “disgraceful” literature. The first act then opens in a brighter mood and happier times in the author’s early years when his creativity was at full flower. Kivi, whose real last name was Sternvall, is visited by his patroness, Charlotta Lönnqvist, and her pupil-assistant Hilda, to whom Aleksis reads one of his recent poems. They are joined by a group of well-wishers—members of the artistically progressive Young Finns—who congratulate him on winning a prize for his play, but Aleksis criticizes one of them for his “cheap aesthetics.” Kivi’s view was that the common people should not be described in prosaic terms but given ideals that they should strive for.

In Act II the mature Kivi, embattled by the literary establishment and embittered by fate, begs Professor Ahlqvist to support the publication of his books, but after poring over them for a while Ahlqvist just silently walks out. Kivi then hides from the band of Young Finns, ashamed of his failures. After Kivi is given some money by a supporter and goes out for some liquid fortification, Ahlqvist monologizes that such “defilers” of the national language must simply not be supported but crushed.

Act III opens with Kivi going into am empty theater to drink and meditate until the mythical beings in his subconscious appear to him in frightening hallucinations. (He’s got the DT’s.) He then falls asleep, with half of the last act taking place in real life and the other half in his visions. Ahlqvist reappears, pushing a decrepit old poet who he idolizes but who opposes Kivi along in a wheelchair. Characters from Kivi’s play, The Cobblers on the Heath, appear, possibly from the stage and possibly from the author’s imagination. Charlotta tries once again to recue Kivi, but it’s too late. Ahlqvist now appears as a devil with horns. In the epilogue, set in the mental hospital, Kivi encounters his younger self and sings of an “Isle of Bliss.” The doctor, another manifestation of the evil Ahlqvist, ushers Charlotta in. The final song presents a vision of the Isle of Death which awaits him.

The problems with the opera, cited above, probably make it doomed to failure as a stage play, and certainly not a work that will travel the globe; and speaking personally, I disagree with Kivi’s idea that the common people must be idealized and given goals to strive for. (Some of ‘em strive and some of ‘em don’t, and that’s just how life goes.) Yet in a sense, Aleksis Kivi is a universal topic, the struggle of the individual artist against society and the artistic establishment. One thinks of such tragic figures as Robert Burns or Franz Kafka, those tilters at literary windmills who were crushed in their lifetimes but glorified after their tragic early deaths. But oh my God, that music! It’s absolutely transcendent; it shimmers and glows in one’s ears and mind like the remnants of a beautiful dream, even in the dour, fatalistic moments. It’s so good, in fact, that it grips you from the first notes and never lets go. It’s not so much that you can’t escape it so much as that you don’t want it to end. And oddly enough for a modern composer, Rautavaara wrote in a largely tonal style with occasional real arias, albeit modern ones, in which the soloists’ voices resound—particularly Hynninen, who is in fabulous voice from start to finish. Kivi and his buddies even get a pretty good drinking song in Act II. Atonality only comes into the opera during the Act III mad/hallucination scene. Thus, for me at least, it is the extraordinarily high quality of the score that places it on an exalted level, even above such other near-misses among modern operas as Lennox Berkeley’s Nelson or Poul Ruders’ The Thirteenth Child.

The only times when one’s attention wanders during this opera is when Ahlqvist is onstage, because his is a speaking part and not a singing role. Apparently, Rautavaara wanted a first-class speaker in this role, and according to Wikipedia Lasse Pöysti was one of Finland’s greatest dramatic actors, but of course in these moments all Rautavaara could do was to create a sort of “holding pattern” in the music behind Pöysti while he pontificated to the struggling author. Yes, Rautavaara made up for this with absolutely sparkling music for Charlotta and Helen, and except for the Ahlqvist moments the music never lacks for imagination or color, but this, too was a flaw that made for some dull moments within an otherwise lively and organic musical creation.

As for the performance itself, it is excellent. Every single one of the singers in the cast has a fine and individual-sounding voice, each one of them acts with the voice and they present an excellent ensemble cast in general. This is exactly how modern opera should ideally sound, but as we all know, we’re lucky nowadays if we can even get our standard warhorse operas to sound this good. Operatic voices, as a whole, have deteriorated quite bit since 1997 when this was recorded.

Whether you live to see a stage production of this work or not, this recording is a must for lovers of modern opera in general and Rautavaara admirers in particular.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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