Notes and Editorial Reviews
The Finnish soprano Aino Ackté, an enthusiastic promoter of her country's music (she founded the Savonlinna Festival to foster a national operatic repertoire), was so struck by Juhani Aho's novel
Juha that she wrote a libretto based on it and offered it to Sibelius. When after long consideration he rejected it, the next composer she turned to was Aarre Merikanto (1893-1958). It was an imaginative choice: in 1920 he was a promising young composer, from an operatic background (his father Oskar Merikanto was the most successful Finnish opera composer of the period), and had already written one opera himself. That student one-acter, however, had been condemned as excessively modern, and Merikanto destroyed it. Almost a worse fate awaited
Juha. The Finnish Opera demanded various changes and then, without actually rejecting the piece, shelved it. With remarkable insensitivity Ackté later offered the libretto to yet another composer, Leevi Madetoja, thus making it even less likely that Merikanto's work, with its rumoured reputation as a difficult modern piece, would ever be performed. It was not heard until a broadcast performance three months after the composer's death, and did not reach the stage until five years after that.
Since then, however, despite the continuing popularity of Madetoja's 'rival' setting, Merikanto's work has come to be seen as something of a classic in the Finnish operatic repertoire. It is late- or post-romantic in style, the richly sonorous orchestration owing something to the nineteenth-century Russians and to Scriabin, something to Debussy (at times, therefore, it sounds faintly Delian or Baxian). The very word-responsive vocal lines recall Janácek; so does Merikanto's way of ending some scenes with dramatic abruptness. But the melodic lines have a strength that is his own; it is easier to trace their influence on his pupil Aulis Sallinen than to find any obvious model for them. The plot, too, is one that Sallinen might have taken to instinctively had two other composers not already set it: an eternal triangle of a loving but elderly, crippled husband, dissatisfied young wife and glamorous but brutal stranger. Marja leaves Juha for the wealthy merchant Shemeikka (in fact much of his income is from robbery and extortion) but soon discovers that she is but the latest of his annual 'summer girls', who become unpaid servants once he has finished with them. She returns to Juha, who forgives her, forgives even the child she has had by Shemeikka, but on learning that she was not abducted by him but followed him of her own free will he despairs and kills himself.
The music is at its strongest when it touches the rawest emotions: Juha's passive suffering and his blind animal rage when he at last confronts Shemeikka and cripples him; Marja's adoration of Shemeikka and her pain at his abandonment of her; the moving sincerity of Juha's forgiveness; perhaps most of all the touching lyricism of Anja, an earlier 'summer girl' who still loves Shemeikka despite everything. The music is saved from austerity by its often rich colour (when for example Shemeikka tempts Maria with gifts of a silk scarf, a golden brooch) and the use of folk (or folk-like) music: Shemeikka, at times a jovial Hunding or a jesting Scarpia (although, most tellingly, he is a tenor), turns into a Finnish Khan Konchak when he welcomes his newest temporary consort with music and dancing.
The performance is splendid, Hynninen dark voiced and vehemently eloquent, Saarinen capable both of long-lined lyricism and a touch of edgy shrewishness, Sirkiä suggesting Shemeikka's allure in broad lyrical lines delivered with a heroic ring.
There are no weak links in the supporting cast, and Saraste obviously loves the score's opulence and its big gestures. The recording is first-rate, giving an excellent impression of how stageworthy
-- Gramophone [8/1996]