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Mark Sealey
Classical Net, June 2011

Aulis Sallinen’s The Red Line (Punainen viiva), the composer’s Opus 46, is an opera in two acts from the 1970s; it was first performed by the Finnish National Opera (the company to be heard on this DVD) in Helsinki in 1978. It’s set in the winter of 1907 at the time of Finland’s first parliamentary election; these were also the years in which Sibelius was celebrating Finish culture from a quietly nationalist point of view. Everyone was eligible to vote for the first time; they did so by drawing a red line on the ballot. In 1909 the author Ilmari Kianto (1874–1970) published a novel of the same name, which examined the dashed proletarian hopes for this election. It is from Kianto’s Punainen viiva that Sallinen derived his libretto here.

The composer’s main challenge was to deal with the condescending tone of Kianto’s writing: for all the author claimed to champion the “common people” about whom he wrote, his attitude, and some of the conclusions about their propensity to be “led”, were patronizing and inaccurate. But it was the prevailing sentiment in the 1970s of support for emergent movements for social justice that endorsed the decision of the then Director of the Finnish National Opera, Juhani Raiskinen, to commission this opera from Sallinen.

Sallinen employed some heavy adaptation; he simplified Kianto’s text, he added other material of his own and of the original author, and added folk ballads. This—and Sallinen’s clear understanding of the tripartite structure of the story revolving around the three climacterics of the bear—sleeping, turning and waking—thrust the perspective away from Kianto’s questionable romanticism towards one that was more sympathetic to the subjects of the story; and one that appropriately generalizes their tragedy. By the end of his processes of adaptation and composition, Sallinen was calling Punainen viiva “music theater”, rather than opera. And not merely because there is a strong dance element, but also to hint at the work’s perceived wider appeal.

But The Red Line keeps its symphonic center of gravity. It’s a tonal work with recognizable themes, musical tensions and colorful orchestration. From the tiniest of nuclei, the minor second, D flat/C, most of the opera’s leitmotifs derive. There are solo arias, chorus set pieces and conventional sung dialog. This production expertly conducted by Mikko Franck (whom we see arriving into his orchestra at the start: the rest of the DVD is all on stage) achieves a splendid sense of direction and wholeness; there’s nothing either over-rhetorical or self-consciously alienating about the integration of words, music and theme.

The staging, set and setting in this DVD are minimal: an indeterminate peasant interior/exterior with dark blues, simple wooden furniture and the clothing of determined, self-aware indigents. Children play a vital and impressive part, though their voices are often evidently those of the yet-to-be-trained. Oddly, there is little sense of the freezing wilderness in northeast Finland in which the action takes place, and which is so prominent an influence on the protagonists’ lives.

The principals (especially Päivi Nisula [Riika] and Jorma Hynninen [Topi]) are excellent, convincing, clear and full of animation; there would be a danger to use over-declamatory registers at various points as the tragedy progresses. They avoid it entirely. To be able to follow them visually on this DVD is to respond to their highly-nuanced facial and body language…full of character, interpretative depth and highly communicative understanding of their parts. Hannu Forsberg (Simana) is also devilish and compelling in his delivery.

It’s also necessary for both music and staging both to point up—yet not overdo—the symbolism, especially of the red line—as blood, as division, as an unambiguous border over which the poor will not cross (or are not allowed to cross), and finally as a line of Topi’s blood. This is achieved totally satisfactorily. Following the action with subtitles (for non-Finnish speakers) and understanding the somewhat Ibsenesque expositions and interchanges between characters who never seem quite to connect, so great are the challenges that separate them, is a moving experience.

One’s impression at the end is of a quiet, self-confident drama, not a manifesto—for all the social messages implicit and explicit in the characterization and characters’ reflections on their circumstances; chiefly their poverty. In other words, this is an exciting, unadorned, well staged, well sung and performed musical experience to very high production and presentation standards. The recording is aurally and visually top notch, the booklet with the single DVD contains all the requisite information necessary to get the most from the opera; although more background on the singers would have been welcome. As a major milestone in contemporary (Finnish) opera, this is one at the very least to investigate because what all involved have done is produce a concentration on the very essence of the drama, rather than a spectacle.

Kurt Moses
American Record Guide, May 2011

there are no weak performances in this cast. Even the slimy Agitator will move you—aided, to be sure, by Sallinen’s remarkably effective music…

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Arlo McKinnon
Opera News, January 2011

Over the past half-century, Finland has encouraged the development of several composers, and one of the composers most closely associated with this development is Aulis Sallinen. His second opera, The Red Line, has enjoyed a great deal of success since its 1978 premiere, including a guest run by Finnish National Opera on the stage of the Met in 1983. 

Sallinen, writing his own libretto, based the opera on a 1911 novel by Ilmari Kianto about life in remote Finland in 1907. He transforms Kianto’s story from a misanthropic satire into a compassionate, devastatingly tragic depiction of people living in a desperate state of penury. Despite the air of desolate tragedy, the opera has a vibrant warmth and wide gamut of emotion, from utter despair to exuberant hopefulness.

1907 was a critical year in Finnish history: for the first time all adult citizens, male and female, were given the opportunity to vote. In this election, citizens voted by drawing a red line beside the name of the candidate of their choice. Sallinen’s opera, which unfolds around election day, tells its tale of the extreme poverty in the deep Finnish hinterlands through the story of Topi, his wife, Riika, and their three children, all barely surviving on Topi’s meager earnings as a hunter and lumberjack. The story also revolves around an unseen rogue bear that continues to slaughter the family’s livestock. Sallinen has based three structural points on the actions of the bear as it goes into hibernation, briefly awakens in mid-winter and fully awakens in the spring.

Jorma Hynninen truly owns the role of Topi, which he created at the world premiere. He is in great voice for this new production, having sung the role more than a hundred times in the ensuing decades, and emanates a vitality that pervades even the opera’s darkest moments. Päivi Nisula equally rises to the work’s challenges, giving a heartfelt performance as Riika. The complexity of emotions and attitudes conveyed by these two brilliant performers singly and in duet is a joy to behold. They effectively capture the odd balance of love and frustration so typical of couples enslaved by poverty. There are many fine supporting performances here as well, including those of the three children (Tuomo Nisula, Sanni Vilmi and Olivia Ainali), the itinerant peddler Simana (Hannu Forsberg), the political agitator Puntarpää (Aki Alamikkotervo) and the conservative fundamentalist Kaisa (Anna-Lisa Jakobsson).

The opera’s impact is enhanced by the creative direction of Pekka Milonoff. Milonoff succeeds in presenting a staging that is at once realist in tone yet clever in logistics. He captures the bleakness of the drama’s setting without drowning it in oppressiveness. Among Milonoff’s innovations is the addition of dancers as a form of Greek chorus, here performed by the Tsuumi Dance Company, finely choreographed by Ari Numminen.

I shall refrain from discussing specific high points so as not to give away the plot, but one particular musical moment will give newcomers a sense of Sallinen’s compositional virtuosity. Early in Act II, the chorus divides into two constituencies—specifically, those who favor voting for change and those who resist it. The conservatives sing a paean to nature and the Finnish woodlands in a beautiful setting that could have been written by Brahms. This is juxtaposed with the progressives’ march-like anthem to a new day and a new order, written more in the style of Shostakovich. Here as elsewhere, Sallinen demonstrates his mastery of many styles while retaining his own musical voice.

The disc includes worthwhile interviews with Sallinen, Hynninen, Milonoff and the superb conductor Mikko Franck. The only flaw here is that the English subtitles in the Hynninen interview drift further and further behind. One hears the speaker, then waits and waits for the subtitles to appear as he moves on to other topics. Despite the gaffe, this DVD serves as a fine starting point for those seeking to acquaint themselves with Finnish opera.

Robert Benson, December 2010

Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935) is considered to be the successor to Sibelius as Finland’s great composer. His opera The Red Line, commissioned by the Finnish National Opera, had its premiere in Helsinki November 30, 1978. Gloom and despair prevail in this opera, a social drama based on Ilmari Kianto’s 1911 novel set in 1907. This was the first year in which elections were held which eventually led to Finnish independence a decade later. The Red Line tells the story of the crofter Topi and his family who live in poverty in a bleak, wintry area. They have been told that if they draw a red line on the ballot they will be freed of oppression. There is a bear in the area that has killed some of Topi’s flock which caused the death of his three children from starvation. Topi swears he will kill the bear, but in the final scene Topi is killed by the bear, his throat slit by a red line. Sallinen’s powerful music perfectly conveys this tragic story. Baritone Jorma Hynninen sang Topi in the premiere and also sings it in this live performance in May 2008. Surely this is a definitive performance of this important work. Video and audio are excellent. The bonus interviews with the composer, stage director Pekka Milonoff, conductor Mikko Franck and baritone Jorma Hynninen add to the importance of this release.

Kevin Filipski
Times Square, October 2010

DVD of the Week

Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen’s stunning historical opera The Red Line, about his country’s first Democratic election and its devastating non-impact on a struggling family, was composed in 1978; it’s one of the rare contemporary operas to grip audiences with its stirring music and powerful story. This performance, filmed at Helsinki’s Finnish National Opera house last year, is a knockout, another example of Sallinen’s composing style that combines modernism and classicism to create a unique, dramatic sound world. Jorma Hynninen (who also played the lead role at its premiere) and Paivi Nisula are heartrending as the couple who futilely hope that socialism brings a better life for their children, Mikko Franck conducts sympathetically and Pekka Milonoff’s straightforward staging provides maximum impact. Short interviews with Sallinen, Hynninen, Franck and Milonoff are included. 

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