Notes and Editorial Reviews
Rautavaara is one of Finland's many fine composers; perhaps the finest. His 1972 Cantus Arcticus, for Birds and Orchestra, has achieved international success and several recordings; so has Angel of Light, his seventh symphony, dating from 1994. His piano concertos are played with reasonable frequency. He's written close to a dozen operas, and in recent years he has moved away from serialism, which only seemed to interest him briefly. His style, if one had to define it, must be called neo-Romanticism. Many find his expression of it too conservative--not "daring," not "new", not "forward-looking" enough. Bah! He writes beautiful music filled with melodies that are
plentiful if not always conventionally memorable. His music is recognizable; he favors swirling figurations in upper strings and upper winds that can be either dreamy/otherworldly or used as a backdrop for expressive wind and voice writing. There are Leitmotif-like tunes that repeat or alter slightly. And one thing is certain: he's a fine dramatist, as anyone watching his latest opera, Rasputin, will attest to.
The plot (Rautavaara also wrote the libretto) is told directly and chronologically. We first see the Tsarevitch pale and ill; he suffers from hemophilia and the doctors say his condition is hopeless. Rasputin is called in by the Tsarina (he's recommended by her lady-in-waiting) and he heals the boy--at least temporarily--and from then on his power at court increases. An untidy but charismatic figure (who apparently was about half the size of Matti Salminen, who portrays him here), Rasputin believes that only through giving in to sin can one achieve salvation ("wonderful sin, wonderful suffering," he sings at one point), and he takes part in drunken orgies to prove it. Some at court become jealous, and a plot is hatched to murder him. He's hit in the head with a cross by the Bishop in Act 2, and in Act 3 he is poisoned, but to no effect. He is shot but survives, and finally is shot again and drowned.
The opera takes about two-and-a-half hours and there are 25 solo singing parts. Who's who can be a bit confusing, but the gist is hard to miss and the major players--Rasputin, the Tsarina, Tsar Nicholas, and the two main plotters, Felix and Dimitri, who seem in love with each other despite wanting to marry the same woman--are clearly drawn. The music has a decidedly Russian essence, with occasional reminders of Mussorgsky or Rimsky-Korsakov. Big choral and orgiastic dance scenes alternate with one-on-one confrontations, some of the former being Rasputin's hallucinations. The action does not unfold quickly--there's a lot of talk--but it is sustained by its grandeur. The brief final scene, after the assassination, is a dream of Alexandra's in which she sees, as per Rasputin's warnings, the collapse of the regime. It's weaker than the scene before it. Perhaps the opera is not a masterpiece, but it's a masterful work to be sure.
The strange thing about Rautavaara's take on the historic figure of Rasputin is that it doesn't quite condemn him. It presents him as Rasputin sees himself--certainly complex, but on a mission of some worth, and as a genuinely disturbed and maniacally pious man. If he is a major manipulator, we get no hint that he's aware of it; he wants power because he thinks he knows what is right. And this is the way Matti Salminen, for whom the part was composed, plays him. The role is very long and Salminen stands up to it, his pitch-black voice undiminished (he's 60 years old), his ranting always under control (occasionally he sounds like Hagen calling the vassals), his staggering about the stage believable. He's almost sympathetic, almost saintly, and some observers might find this a weakness--it seems the opera needs a true villain. Rautavaara's Rasputin manages to combine being revolting with being magnetic--a daringly strange but compelling creation.
Jorma Hynninen and Lilli Paasikivi are excellent as the vaguely clueless Nicholas and Alexandra, with the former bringing as much power to his part as possible--he remains a great singing actor. Felix and Dimitri, the connivers, are sung by the superb Jyrki Anttila and Gabriel Suovanen, respectively, their dandyism giving the truth to the corruption at court. Oily and over-preening, they're clearly no match for the overwhelming Rasputin, good or bad. Irina, the woman they both want to marry, is nicely, innocently handled by Riikka Rantanen. The rest of the cast is faultless--what a grand company the Finnish National Opera is! Where do they get all of those fine baritones and basses?
The no-nonsense, symbolism-free, tell-the-story-straight direction by Vilppu Kiljunen takes place on a turntable stage. Hannu Lindholm's sets consist of severe grey walls with sparsely placed Russian Orthodox icons that make their point; the lavish upholstery of the orgy scenes contrasts. Kimmo Viskari's costumes are lush and historically correct. Claude Naville's lighting deserves special mention--it's grand and direct at court and knows how to pitch a good hallucinatory scene. Conductor Mikko Franck, looking about 18 years old, has superb control over this complicated, many-layered work, and the orchestra and chorus do not disappoint.
The opera is sung in Finnish, and Ondine has supplied subtitles in German, French, English, and Finnish; sound choices are Dolby Digital 5.1, Surround, and PCM Stereo. The direction for video by Aarno Cronvall is wise, with enough long shots to give us the big picture and close and medium shots to examine the players. This is a grand show. [7/28/2005]
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com Read less
Works on This Recording
Rasputin by Einojuhani Rautavaara
Riikka Rantanen (Mezzo Soprano),
Jyrki Anttila (Tenor),
Matti Salminen (Bass),
Lassi Virtanen (Tenor),
Jyrki Korhonen (Bass),
Ritva-Liisa Korhonen (Soprano),
Jorma Hynninen (Baritone),
Lilli Paasikivi (Mezzo Soprano),
Gabriel Suovanen (Baritone)
Finnish National Opera Orchestra,
Finnish National Opera Chorus
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