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The Sunday Opera: "Kullervo" by Aulis Sallinen

Finland has been in the news quite a bit recently, but none of it has been about opera. We’ll remedy that on this week’s Sunday Opera (5/22 3:00 p.m.) for a work that is based on a mid-19th century epic poem of 50 cantos and 22, 795 lines by Elias Lonnrot that is said to be “a story of a people from the beginning of the world to the introduction of Christianity” entitled the Kalevala. The Kalevala has been adopted as a “national epic of Finland.”

“Kullervo” is an opera by Aulis Sallinen based on cantos 31 – 36 and is a revenge tragedy of the highest order.

Kullervo is just a child when his uncle Unto, the head of a rival clan, attacks Kullervo’s family, and believing he has killed Kullervo’s family, Unto takes Kullervo as his slave. Kullervo is mistreated by Unto’s wife who bakes rocks into the loaves of bread she gives to him, so he kills their herd of cows and eventually murders her in retribution before running away.

Years pass and Kullervo is told by his friend Kimmo that his family is alive, and he realizes that he has seen them. However, when he returns to them, he realizes that he has accidentally slept with his sister, and the family turns him away.

Finally, Kullervo decides that his uncle is the cause of his family’s pain, and with the help of a hunter, an adventurer, and two others, he returns to Unto’s village and destroys it, killing everyone. When his revenge is satisfied, he seeks out Kimmo only to find that he has gone insane and doesn’t recognize Kullervo. Instead, Kimmo sees Kullervo as a Christ-like figure who carries the sins of the world on his shoulders. Kullervo, looking back at the misery that has passed, walks into a fire and kills himself.

The opera premiered at the LA Opera having initially been written for the new National Opera House in Helsinki which wasn’t finished in time for the premiere to coincide with the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of Finland’s independence, and it is that cast to which we’ll be listening.

Kullervo is performed by Jorma Hynninen, his uncle, Unto, is Juha Kotilainen, his father, Kalervo, is Matti Saliminen, his mother is Eeva-Lisa Saarinen, his sister is Satu Vihavainen, Unto’s wife is Paula Etelavuori, and his friend Kimmo is Jorma Silvasti. Ulf Soderblom conducts the Finnish National Opera Chorus and Orchestra.

Sallinen’s music features some interesting orchestrations and use of percussion, and we’ll sample more of his work after the opera with his Symphony No. 4, Chamber Music III (The Nocturnal Dances of Don Juanquixote) and Chamber Music VII entitled Cruselliana based on themes by another much loved Finnish clarinetist and composer, Bernhard Crusell.

We’re very pleased to be offering listeners the chance to hear some interesting works from the pen of a contemporary composer with whom they may not be familiar, so we hope you’ll tune in for an enjoyable afternoon of music.

Michael is program host and host of the WWFM Sunday Opera, Sundays at 3 pm, and co-host of The Dress Circle, Sundays at 7 pm.
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