This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
FAGERLUND Döbeln • Sakari Oramo, cond; Sören Lillkung (Döbeln, A Burbot); Anu Komsi (Doctor 1, Dream Figure); Annika Mylläri (Doctor 2, Strengtporten, Madame); Lasse PenttinenRead more (Orderly, King Gustav IV Adolf, Ensign); Robert McLoud (Field Surgeon); Kokkola Op Fest O • BIS 1780 (59:00 Text and Translation)
This eccentric little opera is the first by the Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund (b.1972). Considered one of the most important of the younger generation of Finnish composers, he received his diploma from the Sibelius Academy just four years before beginning work on this piece, commissioned by the Finnish West Coast Kokkola Opera. The title character is General Georg Carl von Döbeln, a real-life hero of the 1908–09 war in which Sweden lost Finland to Russia. In a framing story based on real events in 1789, Döbeln receives a head wound in a battle, and is given opium as an anesthetic in preparation for surgery. Drug-induced delirium results in a series of seven surrealistic dreams set 20 years in his future. Symbolic and in some ways absurdist, with an inept Swedish king, confrontational alter egos, talking fish, and an aging brothel-keeper who fries blintzes for the troops, the opera was written to mark the bicentennial of Finnish independence. It does so most unconventionally, eschewing both heroics and celebration to instead examine the irrationalities of war—this and all wars—through the subconscious of the Swedish general. Finnish poet Jusa Peltoniemi provides a libretto—in Swedish and Finnish according to what each character would have spoken—in which little is actually said, much is communicated, and in which everything carries great weight. It is both serious and humorous, often at the same time. It plays with reality and delusion, time and destiny. It is a tour de force.
The music itself is no less amazing. Fagerlund has scored the work for an orchestra of 15, including two percussionists and piano. He uses those relatively modest resources brilliantly. Stylistically, his music has been likened to that of the previous generation of Finnish composers, particularly Magnus Lindberg. So it is, at least in its sonorities, especially the more massive ones like the impressive battle music that opens the work. In its many sections of haunting ethereality it seems closer to the work of another Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho. The musical characterization of each scene and individual is clever and telling, tracing Döbeln’s emotional disintegration from dream to dream and his eventual reconciliation with his fears. Perhaps what impresses most is how the stillness can be so intense. One must, of course, credit Sakari Oramo and his virtuoso ensemble for their part of that, as well.
Not to neglect the singers. The vocal style is eclectic, with small critical segments of dramatic speech, sections of soaring lyricism, and moments of crisis that are near sprechstimme. There are 11 challenging roles spread among the five soloists, each differentiated in part by the vocal writing, and most tellingly by the singers. All are Kokkola Opera Summer regulars and most are native singers who studied at the Sibelius Academy. The one exception is American bass Robert McLoud, whose sonorous bass adds firmness to his portrayal of the Field Surgeon. Soprano Anu Komsi carries a large part of the drama as the alter-ego Dream Figure with her attractively bright, agile voice and great intensity. Annika Mylläri, who doubles as the company’s managing director, has a darker, creamier voice and fine comic timing, which she uses to good effect as the lady of the shipwreck. Tenor Lasse Penttinen has a light but pleasingly warm voice and the ability to create characters vocally. Baritone Sören Lillkung, who judging from the cover photo must be fun to watch on stage, is a singer better known in Scandinavia for his musical theater performances. He possesses a large, handsome voice and a fine sense of the absurd, particularly useful when Döbeln is transformed into a fish.
Add exemplary engineering that complements the excellence of the performances, and one has an easy recommendation to anyone who enjoys audience-friendly modern opera. Döbeln has me searching for recordings of other works by this composer, and looking forward to the next opera. May it come soon.
FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
Time, once again, to hail yet another obscenely talented young musician from Finland. Sebastian Fagerlund ticks all the boxes: he's young (b. 1972), open-minded, happy to engage in multi-media projects, and, most importantly of all, he is writing music that is both forward-looking and audience friendly.
Listening to Döbeln, you'll be reminded of a number of Fagerlund's older contemporaries, in particular Magnus Lindberg. Like Lindberg, Fagerlund has a taste for the richer sonorities of the orchestra, bass clarinet for example and croaking bassoon. He also has a masterly grasp of percussion writing, a skill that allows him to grade and lighten almost any instrumental weave at a stroke. In fact, Fagerlund rarely indulges in dense textures, and this is the primary distinction between his work and that of his predecessors. You get all the drama of Lindberg or Salonen, but with fewer notes.
Fewer instruments too. The orchestra for this opera consists of only 15 players, but the variety of sounds and gradations he draws from the small group is extraordinary. Even more surprisingly, there is an almost complete avoidance of extended performance techniques, a few trombone glissandos and some nasal singing bordering on Tibetan overtone chant is as adventurous as it gets. Fagerlund is evidently a composer for whom drama matters: every aspect of the score is put to the service of the narrative, and anything that could distract is studiously avoided.
The plot concerns a Finnish officer Georg Carl von Döbeln, who receives a head wound during a battle between Finland and Russia in the early 19
th century. This causes him to have a series of hallucinatory dreams, in which other events from Finland's history, most notably its wars with Sweden, are played out. The opportunities for drama here are mediated to say the least. Battles play an important part, but dreams and visions are equally important. Without knowing exactly what is happening on the stage (the work has been done a disservice by not appearing on DVD) it is fair to say that Fagerlund locates his dramaturgy closer to the world of dreams than to graphic depictions of battlefield violence. The libretto is structured around seven dream episodes, and each is imbued with a specific mood and atmosphere. The most memorable is the sixth, in which Döbeln imagines himself to have been transformed into a fish. The aquatic environment is subtly suggested, rather than crudely outlined as other composers might, and the whole experience is satisfyingly surreal.
The politics of national identity clearly play an important part in the conception of this work, but from the outside they are difficult to untangle. Finland as a nation defines itself through its distinction from Sweden and Russia, the two larger nations having occupied it for prolonged periods of its history. By dramatising Finland's conflicts with both countries, the work is clearly trying to make a point, as are the liner-notes, which state, ironically or not, that the issues of national identity here were suggested to the composer by the fact that he was born on 6 December, Finnish Independence Day.
But the paradoxes run deep. The relationship with Sweden, both of Finland itself and of this opera, is a complex issue. The libretto alternates between the two languages, with the Finnish protagonists speaking Swedish. This is allegedly a nod to historical accuracy, Swedish being the language that the historical figures themselves spoke, but a more political point is obviously being made. But what is it? Add to all this the fact that the recording is of Finnish performers, but was made in Sweden and for a Swedish label and you're no closer to solving the puzzle.
As you'd expect from BIS, the recording is excellent, and respect to the label for their continued championing of SACD, and for their use of it outside the core repertoire. The recording was made in a concert hall, without an audience I think, and without staging. Singing and playing are to a consistently high standard, and all of the performers are helped by the composer's innate - or possibly hard-earned - grasp of idiomatic orchestration. This is an excellent introduction to the work of a promising new voice from Finland. Here's hoping the DVD won't be too far behind.
Anu Komsi (Soprano),
Robert McLoud (Bass),
Sören Lillkung (Baritone),
Annika Mylläri (Soprano),
Lasse Penttinen (Tenor)
Kokkola Opera Festival Orchestra
Dobeln: Act I: Prolog
Dobeln: Act I Scene 1: Operationen (Faltskarn, Doktor 1, Doktor 2, ) - Interlud I
Dobeln: Act I Scene 2: Den forsta drommen: Kungen (, Dromskepnad, Gustav Adolf) - Interlud II
Dobeln: Act I Scene 3: Den andra drommen: Retratt (Dromskepnad, Sprengporten, Faltskarn, ) - Interlude III
Dobeln: Act I Scene 4a: Den tredje drommen: Isfiske (Fanrik, Dromskepnad, Faltskarn, Sprengtporten, Alla Fyra)
Dobeln: Act I Scene 4b: Den fjarde drommen: Laken (Laken, Fanrik, Faltskarn, Dromskepnad)
Dobeln: Act II: Interlude IV - Scene 5: Den femte drommen: Skeppsvraket (Madame, Fanrik, Faltskarn, Dromskepnad)
Dobeln: Act II Scene 6: Den sjatte drommen: Kamp (Dromskepnad, Faltskarn, Fanrik, Laken)
Dobeln: Act II Scene 7: Den sjunde drommen: Revolution (Gustav Adolf, , Dromskepnad)
Dobeln: Act II Scene 8: Operationen (, Faltskarn, Betjant, Doktor 1, Doktor 2)