The Savonlinna Opera Festival has been acting host to a foreign opera company each year since 1987– and in recent years to not one but two.
These opera-house visits are Finland’s only cultural import venture of this magnitude and length affording a vista of the outside world. The guests have come from far and wide, Asia and America included, and they have enabled the Festival to cover a far broader repertoire than its own resources would permit.
Olavinlinna Castle is without exception a novel, unusual arena for these visitors. Head of Productions Jukka Pohjolainen reports that their reaction usually runs along the same lines. Their first, on entering the Castle, is one of gentle horror: how on earth are they going to manage here? Then follow the thrill of achievement and finally the pain of departure. They all say they would be happy to come again – and four have actually done so.
Bel canto from its second homeland
Joan Matabosch, Artistic Director of the Teatro Real Madrid, is already familiar with Savonlinna, having visited it 12 years ago as Director of Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu.
“Savonlinna is one of the world’s most magical places, and the Opera Festival has become a model global example in its field. It’s an honour for us to perform at the Festival, and I’m sure it will be a pleasant experience for the orchestra, the soloists and our technical team,” enthuses Matabosch.
“And it will be a chance for Finnish audiences to get to know one of Europe’s leading opera houses.”
With them the Madrid company is bringing along Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani (The Puritans). This was one of the first operas ever performed at the Teatro Real; the premiere on December 6, 1850 was only two weeks after the theatre opened.
I puritani is one of the greatest bel canto operas, romantic in spirit, and composed by Bellini at the height of his creative career.
“The way it handles one of the hallmarks of the Romantic era is simply masterly: madness demonstrating the irrepressible power of emotion within the framework of physical frailty and social marginalisation.”
I Puritani is seldom performed, the reason being that it is tremendously challenging for the soloists.
“The leading roles are among the most difficult in operatic literature. Luckily we have singers like Jessica Pratt and Celso Albelo, and as our conductor Maestro Evelino Pidó, one of the finest experts on this repertoire.”
The Bolshoi a much sought-after guest
No way is this year’s visit by the Bolshoi just a routine one, says the Theatre’s General Director Vladimir Urin.
“The Finland 100 celebrations and the Opera Festival’s own jubilee make our appearance extra-special.”
“We can’t accept anything like all the invitations we receive. We just accept the ones we feel are particularly important artistically. We also give priority to our close neighbours, our friends.”
Why bring Tchaikovsky to Savonlinna?
“Tchaikovsky is a cornerstone of our music, one of the greatest 19th-century composers whose legacy we interpret. We come back to his operas time and again, preparing new versions, new performances and productions. We can’t imagine the Bolshoi without such operas as Eugene Onegin or Iolanta,” says General Director Urin.
“This is on condition that new directions take the place of the old ones, and several already exist. You’ll see a concertante version of Eugene Onegin because as things stand at the moment, we can’t manage a full stage production. But we can for Iolanta.”
The production of Iolanta is a recent one and for the first time in a double billing with Nutcracker – not the full ballet but as the symphonic suite compiled by Tchaikovsky himself. Sergey Zhenovach the Stage Director says the suite creates the inner world of the title character in a tremendously poetic and fairytale-like way, setting the scene for the events in the opera.
Iolanta is thought to have been performed in Finland sometime between 1917 and 1919. Conducting both the Bolshoi productions is the Theatre’s Music Director Tugan Sokhiev.
How does the Opera Festival itself benefit from these visits?
One of the greatest benefits is that each year we subject ourselves to outside expert evaluation. We also have a chance to compare and study our guests’ solutions, both practical and artistic, and at the same time we can offer our clients the varied repertoire they expect of the Savonlinna Opera Festival.
Performances by the Bolshoi Theatre in Olavinlinna Castle July 25–29.
Performances by the Teatro Real Madrid in Olavinlinna Castle July 31–August 4.