American Record Guide
, September 2011
Aleksis Kivi is regarded as Finland’s “national author”, creator of “the first major novels, plays and poems in the Finnish language”, according to the composer’s notes. He died of a combination of alcoholism, madness (said to be schizophrenia), and depression in 1872 at the age of 38.
A genuinely tragic figure, Kivi’s downfall offers juicy material for 20th Century operatic treatment and is a good role for a strong dramatic baritone. Jorma Hynninen, for whom the role was written, fits the bill perfectly. A long-time operatic collaborator with Rautavaara, Hynninen is a master of the composer’s lyrical idiom and a fine actor.
Rautavaara’s 1996 three act opera opens with a brief prologue, set near the conclusion of the protagonist’s demise. Act I proper begins as a flashback to the young Kivi (well sung by Ville Rusanen) feeling his oats and declaring his commitment to depicting the Finnish People warts and all, their crude language, heavy drinking, and gruff character naked and unexpurgated. He is surrounded by his two women, his considerably older patroness Charlotta (Riikka Rantanen) and her pretty, if air-headed, blonde pupil Hilda (Pauliina Linnosaari). All is not merry, though, since Aleksis has a jealous alter ego in the Professor August Ahlqvist, intentionally given a speaking role owing to what the composer regards as his inherent lack of musicality (played to the hilt by actor Jenne Reminkainen). Ahlqvist will have none of Kivi’s realist aesthetic, insisting instead on the duty of art to teach man “what should be”, rather than “what is”. His disgust at the rabble’s abuse of the Finnish language might sound familiar to readers of these pages. The act closes with Charlotta thinking better of her budding lust for artist Aleksis, and she leaves him after advising her pupil to leave him as well.
Act II opens with the older Kivi asking the powerful Ahlqvist for aid in getting his works published. Not a chance! He tears up the manuscripts and throws Aleksis a penny to go drinking with. Act III finds the destitute Aleksis alone, drunk and delusional, tortured by the specter of Ahlqvist, assorted characters of his own invention, and apparitions of his past. An Epilogue finds Aleksis at death’s door in a mental institution, begging for peace. He sees himself revisiting his youth and sings a duet with it (a neat touch). The moving, almost Wagnerian finale is set to words that were also set by Sibelius.
Rautavaara based his libretto on texts by Kivi himself, as well as by merciless critic Ahlqvist. They are set in a basically tonal, lyrical style, suitably dramatic sometimes, and are constructed with what amounts to set pieces in the traditional operatic sense. The production is austere, since this is essentially a chamber opera. Groups and spare characters are wheeled around on dollies by “the eight brother” (an extra “Young Finn”: see below), a “dancing role” (Timo Saari) symbolizing, I suppose, Kivi’s active subconscious, or, more likely, his psychosis.
Pekka Milonoff’s direction is more clever than consistently effective…Singing is generally excellent…The piece is worth seeing…subtitling is clear; sound is excellent.