Culture - Tuesday 19.9.2000

Matti Salminen steals show as Finnish National Opera's King Lear

 Aulis Sallinen turns Shakespeare play into old king's longing for love

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By Hannu-Ilari Lampila

Matti Salminen has generally been seen on the operatic stage playing roles of monarchs or high priests. His part is that of a ruler in Aulis Sallinen's new opera King Lear as well, but the character is like nothing he has ever played before: an absolute ruler who experiences complete downfall.
In his role as the stage king, Salminen also plays a fool and a madman in the midst of chaos and destruction. King Lear is a work that rises or falls along with the protagonist.

Most of the other characters
on the stage are rendered mere extras next to Salminen. When Salminen is off stage, the performance starts to lose some of its tension. When he returns, the stage is electrified again.
Sallinen had Salminen in mind for the title role. It is evident from everything how much Salminen's booming bass voice and artist's persona inspired the composer.
The music allows Salminen to use his bass voice to paint as powerful and colourful a picture as one can imagine, from a glowing cantelina to cries of pain, and parodic gestures.
Salminen's latent skills as a comedian burst forth almost volcanically in the performance directed by Kari Heiskanen. The gigantic man has apparently been easy to mould in Heiskanen's hands, and Salminen is visibly enjoying all of the clowning and the wallowing in squalour that Heiskanen has dreamed up for him.

Sallinen has constructed his King Lear
in a very traditional manner, anchoring it in tonality; following the old-fashioned rules of aesthetics, the opera might be considered anachronistic. When a composer has such a strong personality and tonal language of his own, magnificent professional skill, and the genuine instincts of a dramatist, the traditional concept becomes self-motivating.
King Lear has obviously undergone a transformation en route from Shakespeare's play to a libretto and opera by Aulis Sallinen. Originally a story of a raging physical and psychological struggle for power, it has become a drama of emotions, and of Lear's longing for love.
The music is dominated by a late-romantic melodic pathos, typical of Sallinen, who started his Red Line from emotional Sibelius-like arches. Terse seconds control the melodic movement and give it a plaintive, valedictory tone.
In opera there is such a thing as right and wrong melodic pathos. Melodies can be blindingly deceptive, full of the poison of lies.
Lear believes in the false sentimentality of his daughters Goneril and Regan, and rejects Cordelia, who will not pour out her emotions. When Lear and Cordelia find a common strain of love at the end of the opera, the melodies begin to pour out almost as if it were a musical.

The most tender moments are not far
from the style of a Hollywood film musical.
The slow-moving melodic pathos tends to slow down the rhythm of events, rendering it static at times. Some scenes would call for sharper counterforces and tensions.
The trumpets and drums of war are sometimes loud and jarring, but the heavy drama of battle is fairly alien to the opera. Instead, Sallinen favours limping parody and sarcastic playfulness, and he paints feelings of terror and chaos at times with very thin, lyrical colours that have a ghostly feel to them.
The most important dramatic counterforce would be Lear's evil daughters Regan and Goneril. Taina Piira and Kirsi Tiihonen would seem to have the capacity for any amount of malice. However, now they appear to be somewhat arrogant bourgeois ladies who disapprove of their father's attempts to pretend to be young, and the fact that he has started drinking and womanising.
Vocally, Taina Piira is one of the strongest figures in the opera. This soprano has a dramatic force whose strength just keeps on growing.
The old king's best friend is the Fool, as played by Aki Alamaikkotervo. The singers comic gifts, and his character tenor are in the right place in his role. Sauli Tiilikainen as Edgar is also a great comic figure who knows how to sing expressively. Comedy flourishes when Lear, who has lost all hope, is among these two fellow fools.

Director Heiskanen has found foolish qualities
in several other characters as well. The deep stare of Jorma Silvasti's Edmond, and his steely tenor voice sometimes collapse into shivering hysterics.
Lilli Paasikivi's Cordelia sings with great style, but as a character she does not stand out much. Jorma Hynninen plays Gloucester in his familiar gruff style. The magnificent resonance of his voice has taken on a hard, rough tone. Of the other singers, the Duke of Albany, played by Petri Lindroos is impressive by virtue of trying so hard.
Set designer Markku Hakuri has constructed a kind of arena as his stage playground, which is slightly reminiscent of the set for Sallinen's Kullervo. The simple design is both stylish and functional, and combined with the lighting of Olli-Pekka Koivunen, it makes quite a modern impression. There is not much use of high technology, and props are moved by hand, as if in a primitive theatre.
Okko Kamu and the orchestra of the Finnish National Opera are in their element as they play the glowing, darkly romantic and ghostly rhythms of Sallinen's music. The choir is often rendered a backstage sound prop, shouting apocalyptic cries of anger and destruction. The choir appears on stage in 20th century clothing, which is a good way of underscoring the timelessness of the story.

Helsingin Sanomat / First Published in Print 17.9.2000

 Finnish National Opera
 Aulis Sallinen

Helsingin Sanomat

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