Kitchen Sink Realism for Merikanto’s Juha

FinlandFinland  Aarre Merikanto: Juha Finnish National Opera, Kurt Kopecky (conductor), Helsinki. 21.12.2011 (GF)


Photo: Copyright Finnish National Opera / Heikki Tuuli Camilla Nylund and Jyrki Anttila

Director: Anna Kelo
Sets: Jani Uljas
Costumes: Erika Turunen
Lighting and video designer: Mikki Kunttu
Choreographer: Ari Numminen

Juha: Jaakko Kortekangas
Marja: Camilla Nylund
Shemeikka: Jyrki Anttila
Mother-in-law: Lilli Paasikivi
Kaisa: Riikka Rantanen
Kalamatti: Hannu Forsberg
Housewife: Tiina Sinkkonen
Servant: Anna-Lisa Jakobsson
I Tar maker: Koit Soasepp
II Tar maker: Andrus Mitt
Anja: Tove Åman
I Girl: Elli Vallinoja
II Girl: Niina Keitel

To Scandinavian music lovers, Oskar Merikanto is well-known as a composer of popular and attractive songs and piano pieces. He also wrote operas himself and was Principal Conductor of the Finnish Opera. His son, Aarre (1893 – 1958) started composing at an early age, completing an almost completely atonal opera at 18, although he had never been in contact with the modernist tendencies during the early 20th century. In 1919, he received a commission from the world famous soprano Aino Ackté to compose an opera to a libretto she had written, based on a novel by Juhani Aho. Merikanto set to work in early 1920. A first version was completed within a year, but he started to rewrite it almost immediately and the finished revised version was presented at the beginning of 1922. He sent the score to the Finnish Opera but had little hope that it would be accepted, being too far removed from the musical style that the Finnish audiences were accustomed to at the time. The management at Finnish Opera was quite taken by the score, but considered some of the music too difficult for its orchestra to play, and since their principal conductor at that time was the German Franz Mikorey, who did not care for Finnish music in general, the opera was turned down. Just a few years later, Leevi Madetoja’s Pohjalaisia (The Ostrobothnians) was premiered with tremendous success and interest in Merikanto’s work cooled off thereafter. In the mid-1930s, Madetoja set the same libretto as Merikanto and his version was performed in 1935. Merikanto was of course disappointed, and it was not until 1957 that the dying composer heard the third act of his Juha performed on the radio. The complete opera was broadcast on the radio the following year, when Merikanto had already passed on, and the first staged version was performed in 1963. Since then, it has been staged both at the Finnish National Opera and the Savonlinna Festival and in 1972, and it was the first Finnish Opera to be honoured with a complete recording.

The new production was premiered on December 2nd, and the performance I saw was the sixth. Previously only familiar with a short excerpt from the beginning of the opera on a sampler disc from Finlandia, I was prepared for marvellous, colourful and atmospheric orchestral writing, and that was exactly what we got. I fully understand that neither the opera management nor the audience could have been ready for this music in the early 1920s. This was still several years before Alban Berg’s Wozzeck was premiered – certainly a landmark work that revolutionized opera and functioned as an ear-opener, at least for the more radical opera-goers. It is worth noting that it took more than 30 years for that opera to reach the Stockholm Opera – at about the same time, actually, that Juha received its belated premiere on the Finnish Radio.

There is a remarkable freshness to the orchestral music here, which is quite difficult to characterize. The programme notes draw parallels to Janacek, pointing out that ’the melodies of the score rises naturally from the dialogue in a manner reminiscent of the Czech composer’. I can buy that, but the harmonic language is quite different from Janacek’s: harsher, knottier but with a tremendous force and expressivity, and I don’t hesitate to say that it is one of the most powerful and striking opera scores I have encountered. The vocal writing is in a way more ‘traditionally modern’, the dialogue progressing in a kind of longwinded recitative. At times, these recitatives intensify, and are distilled to ariosos – and these are very beautiful, I might add – in the more lyrical passages. On the other hand, in the dramatic passages, of which there are many, there is also much shouting and distorting of voices, and as far removed from bel canto as could be. All this contributes to a rare homogeneity in spite of the heavy contrasts.

The story is a kind of love triangle, even though true love is an ingredient that is largely missing. Juha and Marja are married, but what love there once was has long since faded away. A travelling salesman, Shemeikka, comes to their home seeking shelter for the night. He flirts with Marja, and when Juha is away the following morning they elope together. Juha’s servant girl says that Shermeikka abducted Marja against her will.

Shemeikka turns out to be a criminal and a skirt-chaser who has several women in his harem. Marja becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son. Although she is more or less imprisoned by Shermeikka, she manages to escape and return to Juha, who is happy. They decide to go back to Shermeikka and bring Marja’s son back.

When they meet Shermeikka, he tells Juha that he never abducted Marja, she left voluntarily, which Marja confirms. Juha then loses all faith in his wife and decides to commit suicide.

This new production deviates substantially from the original libretto. It is set in modern times – relatively modern, that is. Juha and Marja run a shabby little restaurant, and in act II we soon realize that Shermeikka’s place is a brothel. The sets are hyper-realistic in the restaurant scenes – verismo so to speak – or in mid-20th century terms ‘kitchen sink realism’. On the other hand, the Shermeikka milieus are rather over the top in a fanciful way. But it all works marvellously and the performance engages the viewer from the word go.

With several of the National Opera’s foremost singing actors in the leading roles, there is dramatic truth to the performance. Camilla Nylund, who was a marvellous Marie/Marietta in Die Tote Stadt a year ago, is back in Helsinki to give a memorable reading of an entirely different character. Vocally she is sometimes sorely strained, but that is in line with the character and the situations. As an actor, she manages to delineate all the conflicting feelings of Marja to perfection: a grand performance. Jaakko Kortekangas is just as adept at playing the much simpler but ultimately warm-hearted Juha. Jyrki Anttila is a truly oily and nasty Shermeikka, with superb timing, and Lilli Paasikivi is a most disgusting mother-in-law. The rest of the cast is excellent, as well with Tove Åman’s Anja standing out.

One can only hope that this production will be seen by as many visitors as possible. There were too many empty seats at the performance I saw, but this was just before Christmas and when many opera-lovers may have had conflicting priorities.

Göran Forsling