Leevi Madetoja: The Ostrobothnians/Pohjalaisia (1924)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute.

I seem to be on some sort of Scandinavian roll here! Finally, I am pleased to introduce our first review of an opera in the Finnish (Suomi) language!

https://www.amazon.com/Madetoja-Finnish-National-Opera-Orchestra/dp/B000ENPK1C

On October 25, 1924, this was declared the National Opera of Finland when it premiered at the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki (the premier incidentally happened to be the 1000th performance given by the theatre). It is based on a 1914 play of the same name by the journalist, screenwriter, and author Artturi Jarviluoma (1879-1942).

The composer, Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947) was briefly a student of Jan Sibelius (who, nevertheless, outlived him by a decade). With its first performance, Sibelius realized that he had failed like an infertile woman to birth for his nation its national opera. Sibelius had made one major attempt at writing a Wagnerian super opera, Veneen Luominen, taking its plot from the story of Lemminkainen in The Kalevala, but the most important thing about its composition is that its prelude ended up becoming The Swan of Tuonela, the second movement of the orchestral Suite named after the heroic character.

This was hardly the first Finnish-language opera, but it was the first natively produced opera to become popular in Finland. The first opera written in Finnish was The Maiden of the North by Oskar Merikanto in 1898. Others include Aino from 1912 by Erkki Melartin, Kullervo from 1917 by Armas Launis, and Juha by Aarre Merikanto (son of Oskar) which was composed by 1922 but rejected as too modernist by the National Opera, and later Madetoja wrote a more traditional setting of the same libretto which was first performed in 1935.

Madetoja was originally from the region of Finland where the opera is set, Ostrobothnia, which is the largest region of the country located directly to the east (ost) of the Gulf of Bothnia which separates Finland and Sweden. The opportunity to set the play to music had originally been given to the Wagnerian composer Toivo Kuula, who eventually turned it down for being too realistic and not a fairy tale six months before his murder in May 1918, but by which time Madetoja had begun what turned out to be the arduous process of composing the score. A Suite was produced in 1923 in order to introduce some of the music before the premiere, which was met with positive reviews, although it was considered strange. Unlike a lot of other operas on this blog, this one did not fall into obscurity and is regularly performed in Finland, although it is essentially unknown outside of that country. The score is described as tonal but dark (in keeping with the themes of class oppression and hatred of the Russian rulers, represented by the Sheriff, by the Finns, which dominates the plot), with an infusion of Finnish folk melodies (which gave the work more appeal), but also a Wagnerian leitmotif system. This review is based on the first recording of the opera under the national Finlandia label from 1977.

The score is noted for its conservatism and stark tonality, strongly influenced by Sibelius. In fact, its revolutionary elements have mostly been obscured by the fact that Madetoja had to almost invent Finnish operatic tradition with this work.

SETTING: Ostrobothnia, Central Finland, circa 1850s. This one is a bit complicated (and dark), as the important characters at the start of the opera are not the most important characters at the end of the opera, so bear with me. Antti Hanka (tenor) is a young farmer awaiting trial for the stabbing murder of a neighbor. (I told you it was dark!). He has been given permission to visit his fiancee Maija Harri (mezzo-soprano) at the farm belonging to her father Erkki (bass), her brother Jussi (baritone) having arranged for the lovers to see each other one last time. Jussi is actually the primary male character, although this is not obvious until act 2. Maija has become a devotee of Pietism (probably Laestadianism, a 19th century Lutheran revivalist movement with strict rules against worldliness and Materialism which still exists today in Scandinavia), and is devastated that he will probably be executed for murder (she eventually convinces him to become a fugitive, which is the critical element of the plot). After two tenor farm hands get drunk, the Russian Sheriff (Vallesmanni, bass) arrives demanding the travel papers from Antti. These are given to him by Jussi, who fails to take off his hat in the presence of the Sheriff (a huge faux pas). The Sheriff then knocks the hat off his head with a whip, which Jussi grabs and breaks in two. The Sheriff then leaves, promising punishment for any future insolence. Meanwhile, Liisa (soprano, and actually the main female character) a servant girl on the Harri farm, has fallen in love with Jussi. A dancing party (which is the cultural-musical high point of the work) is broken up by a gang of thugs led by one Koysti (bass-baritone) who leaves after losing a wrestling match with Jussi (this has no further bearing on the plot, although it, along with the two drunk farm hands in act 1, are a reference to the drunken and fierce reputation of the historical Ostrobothnians in Finnish culture). It is discovered after the interruptions that Antti has fled. The Sheriff returns to interrogate everyone on the farm and suspicion of collaborating with Antti in the escape falls on Jussi, which is used by the Sheriff as an opportunity to have the man beaten half to death. Eventually, the entire household figures out what is going on, and Jussi attempts to pull a knife on the Sheriff, who is fatally stabbed but nevertheless manages to shoot Jussi twice. Erkki, Maija (who confesses that she, obviously, was the one who helped Antti escape) and Liisa all have enough time to say goodbye to Jussi (because, of course, this is opera). He then dies in the arms of Liisa, having a vision of a day when the people of Ostrobothnia will no longer be enslaved, the last thing he sees being the weeping Liisa.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: The Harri Farm, front porch, outdoor scene. (38 minutes)

0: The three-minute overture ** starts off with a four note theme (the first held, the last three ascending a bit more quickly) which gets repeated A LOT as a leitmotif for doom (it is based on a Finnish folk song). It builds up more loudly the second and third time only to die off a little the fourth time (but it comes back in the background rather frequently and gets shifted off to all parts of the orchestra).

7, 15, 25, 32: The first voice we hear is Maija, who is then joined by an elderly (contralto) maid named Kaisa (who shows up again many times later). Antti is heard singing a Finnish folk song ** (The Wind Bent the Birch) as he comes up to speak with Maija (the rattling of his chains can be heard as he walks up). Erkki greets the young man, and Jussi explains how he arranged to have Antti brought, which really seems more like a punishment seeing that he is chained up. The lovers are finally left alone, but the six-minute scene is rather torturous *. After that there are scenes, first Jussi, then Kaisa, but both are thankfully brief. The two drunk farm hands show up to a rather lyrical bout ** although it will get all over the place. They eventually get upbraided by Kaisa. The Sheriff arrives waiting for the traveling papers for Antti ** (there is an underlining dark theme in the bass strings). Even the two drunk farmhands take off their hats out of respect for the Russian Sheriff. Jussi comes in and does not. The Shariff uses his whip on Jussi, and threatens him never to get in his way again.

ACT 2: Inside the Harri Family Farmhouse. (47 minutes)

1: The prelude goes directly into a call and response for Liisa and Kaisa ** which turns into a choral number when the basses come in. A rather effective, if slightly haunting, opener, spanning some five solid minutes. A couple of duetting soprano farm girls thicken the mixture with their happy song. Liisa and Kaisa speak to each other.

11: Jussi comes on, and questions Kaisa on Liisa and discovers her (Liisa) feelings for him *.

14: The first Jussi-Liisa duet ** starts off very innocently (Liisa) but Jussi is very stern at first but eventually he warms up to her.

18: As Jussi thinks about Liisa there is a rather jolly tune coming from the clarinet *, which ends up being taken up by the horn, and then the violins hinting at the dance party which is about to start.

20: But not before one more encounter between Maija and Antti (who sings yet another folk song **, although this time he is hardly happy, seeing that he is being taken to prison for murder).

22: The beginning of the dance music starts ** as Maija and Antti try to convince her father to help Antti. Negative.

24: The dance in full swing ** is perhaps the best section of the score so far.

26: The oddly haunting chorus of the dance guests *** is striking.

30: Maija and Antti try to figure out what to do **. There is real, heartbreaking tension here from the orchestra, and an indication that Antti may be a bit mentally ill.

35: A variant of the opening theme from act one comes on as the gang of Koysti breaks up the party ***.

40: The wrestling match * between Jussi and Koysti is represented by cymbal crashes until Jussi throws Koysti and he and his men depart.

45: In the last two minutes Liisa and Jussi confess their love *, but are interrupted when Maija admits that Antti has escaped and everyone goes out to search for him. The act fades out.

ACT 3: Same as Act 2. (37 minutes)

0: The furious prelude **, eventually settles down.

4: Liisa comes on singing a happy love song **.

7: It turns into a formal love duet with Jussi about becoming one **.

11: The Sheriff arrives * with three men: a Scribe (tenor), a Bailiff (baritone), and a Lay Judge (bass). The Scribe in particular seems annoying.

14: Kaappo is brought it to testify * as to what happened to Antti and he implicates Jussi, which is what the Sheriff has been looking for.

17: Kaisa testifies * although she finds rather inventive ways to avoid the Sheriff’s questions (which annoys him greatly). He orders that Jussi be brought in to him, knowing he wants to beat him up.

21: Jussi is brought in ** and subjected to what is obviously a sham trial. The Scribe warns the Sheriff not to take revenge and claim it as justice.

26: Jussi is forced into the closet by the Sheriff ***, who then beats him with the whip (this is depicted orchestrally to a comparatively lilting passage).

30, 33: Everyone hears what is happening **, Jussi is taken out of the closet and stabs the Sheriff, who fires two shots at him before dying. This being opera, Jussi does not immediately die, but has enough time (five minutes) to say goodbye to the three people in his life: Maija reveals that it was she who helped Antti escape, and it has cost her bother’s life. Erkki says goodbye to his son. Liisa *** is appropriately the longest as Jussi gets close to dying, starts hallucinating about freedom, and stares at her face as everything goes black (the horn does a good job of depicting his heart beat). Liisa cries out his name and cradles his body in her arms as the curtain falls.

COMMENT:

The most striking elements are the orchestral effects (especially when instruments are used to note character tension and other feelings) as well as the brilliant usage of vocal casting (the tenor voice is hardly heroic in this opera, but rather a servant to annoyance and mental illness). The hero is the baritone (the everyman male voice), and the bass voice services the dual purpose of paternity (Erkki) and the evil villain (the Sheriff). One may be deceived at first into thinking that Maija is the main female character, as she appears first and her situation with Antti is established long before we meet up with Liisa. The story is strong and to the point, the main characters a mixed bag of two pairs of romantic lovers, one we rout for (but end tragically) and the other representing typical human beings. The Sheriff connects them all together with his racist sense of superiority (he being Russian, they being Finnish). The only breaks from either of these three main plot points (the two pairs of lovers and the Sheriff) are the two drunk farmhands (which is musically well constructed), the dance party (a built-in-narrative chance to throw in some Finnish cultural colour) and the resulting (but brief) Koysti interlude with the wrestling match. The score is taut, there is never a moment one could consider dull even if only a few moments truly stand out. If I could understand Finnish at all I would be interested in the 1925 and 1936 film adaptations.

I will go with an alpha for this one.

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING:

The Ostrobothnians (the synopsis is my rendering of the original from this article, although I made changes to the vocal casting to match the 1977 recording)

Leevi Madetoja

Veneen Luominen

Pohjalaisia (the play)

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