This concise "tragedia buffa" (as Rautavaara calls it) is haunting and unusual in both subject matter and treatment. It is based on a true story of wealthy English-German twin sisters raised in St. Petersburg who move to southwest Finland with their family after the 1917 revolution. Since no one in the family speaks either Finnish or Swedish the father can't earn a living, and their fortunes begin to dwindle. After a few years the father, brother, and eldest sister commit suicide and the mother also dies, leaving just the twins. After the servants abandon them, the unprepared, isolated sisters proceed to toss kitchen scraps into an empty room, and the house becomes infested with rats. If an occasional visitor from their past appears, they hire a local villager to pretend to be the servant. They live like this until 1987.
In the opera we meet the sisters, Noora and Riina (as they were called by their neighbors), and Eleanor and Irene (the same pair as young girls, sung by different women), in addition to a postman, two village boys, a community caretaker, a lawyer come to buy the property, and from their past, their father, mother, brother, and servant, Gregor. The opera moves between 1987 and 1917, occasionally acknowledging both at once, and also contains dream, or supernatural moments (the sisters are beckoned by a light in the garden). It's neither sad nor funny; there is a bittersweet quality and wackiness that works around the weird tragedy of it all.
Most of the music is in arioso style--brief, expressive melodies--and duets and ensembles abound. The sisters mostly sing together lyrically; since they are somewhat indistinguishable from one another, this makes sense. Frequently accompanied by gentle flutes amid the strings, even their more lucid moments have a dream-like quality. Their younger selves are sung by higher, lighter-voiced women. When the sisters experience the strange light in the garden, the otherwise normal, flowing orchestration turns eerie and hypnotic--and once or twice, menacing. In conversation with real outsiders, the vocal lines are more realistic give-and-take; but when, near the start of the second act, the sisters share a dream, two men in the dream sing a duet as sinuous and expressive as the music for the sisters themselves.
A brief interlude, sung in English when the sisters think they're entertaining a British friend (who is really the lawyer) has a sassy, snare-drum accompaniment and a 1920s pop swagger. After throwing out the intrusive lawyer--intrusive into reality, that is--and the two local boys who acted briefly as the servants, they are left in darkness when the boys turn off the electricity. The sisters wind up in a half-waking, half-dreamlike state ("It is time--it is time to go, time to know/ Everything is prepared, the veil falls off") with friends and family from the past arriving, and they all dance out into the moonlight.
The performances, vocal and instrumental, are beyond criticism, and with only a few longueurs, the opera is very effective. It may not be a masterpiece, and its understatement and strange wit keep it from being as potent as, say, the same composer's Aleksis Kivi--but it is compelling and engrossing, and in its own way quite beautiful and touching. It certainly won't remind you of anything else--Rautavaara has his own voice, and his own persuasive sensibility.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com