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Aulis Sallinen The Palace

ArtHaus DVD 102 091 [1995]



This is an excellently produced film, newly released, of the world premiere of Aulis Sallinen's fifth opera. Although not typical of his usually more serious music, often on Finnish historical themes, this DVD is an admirable route into the oeuvre of Aulis Sallinen (b.1935), leading senior composer in his own country, but not established in the regular repertoire hereabouts. I first came across him in a way that made a lasting impact - three of his string quartets in a recital for an audience of twenty or fewer at London's Royal Academy of Music. It was given by a relatively unknown visiting quartet; within weeks The Kronos Quartet had become world favourites, and progressed to populist repertoire which made them chart leaders ! I doubt if they do Sallinen recitals any more...

With five operas to his credit (we saw The King Goes Forth to France at Covent Garden) Sallinen is a major force in Finland and a mainstay of the Savonlinna Festival. The Palace on DVD includes a bonus behind-the-scenes documentary on the production which, unusually, I would recommend viewing first.

It traces the history of the Savonlinna Castle in a Finnish lake which became the home of an Opera Festival which can, not unfairly, be compared with the early days of Glyndebourne. Lacking the financial advantages of the Christies' endeavour, it limped from crises, financial and political, and has only achieved its international renown fairly recently. Sallinen has been a key figure, and he is unapologetic that his temperament stopped him going down the esoteric route and alienating audiences thereby.

He is an unashamed melodist, but so skilled a craftsman that he has been able to compose in a variety of idioms, well illustrated in this opera which is ironic, satirical and often funny, though its theme is of the utmost seriousness and conclusion both salutary and grim, given developments in many parts of the world...

As rarely these days, the libretto was written in English by two writers, sent to Sallinen on spec, and speedily accepted. It is deliberately unspecific, but has a vaguely Middle East background (the pair had previously worked on Zaide) and there are obvious links with several of Mozart's characters in Entfuhrung, Constanze and Bassa Selim (a provisional title had been The Song of Bassa Saddam, but to avoid misconceptions this was changed. The subplot of doomed autocracy also related to Richard Kapuchinski's The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat.


The staging and its lighting and filmingfor television are impressive, as is the direction of soloists and chorus. Musical standards are high, with the two wives particularly fine singers before they are tricked by a honey-toned tempter into escape from the virtual imprisonment of life in Court with husbands of whom both had long tired, and then shut out as the new autocrativ regime gets under way. .


For another mood and example of Sallinen at his best, see CD review of his epic opera Kullervo.

© Peter Grahame Woolf July 2006