Tonal Escapes & Visual Tendencies: The Savonlinna Opera Festival & The Texture Of Finnish Design – Feature
Finland is a land of wide paradox. The geography itself presents a question much poised as its upper region stretches towards the Artic Circle. Russia lies only 120 kilometers away from the capital Helsinki.
Finland’s location lies within the Scandinavian region yet almost not a part of it. Its architecture and design are based in classic patterns of the past yet a yearning for the future yet to be attained. Artistic expression here has perception wide-ranging making the people also a careful but unique mix.
Take these ingredients and envision a lake region even closer to Russia that brings (in summer) to mind a much larger version of Italy’s North Como region. This is not a time of snow but rather of endless days that rest in twilight at 2am where the heat beads the sweat and the beer flows freely. It is altogether different than textbooks have taught.
Within this Lake Region in the town of Savonlinna, a paradoxical word of force itself, lies Olavinlinna Castlewhere an Opera Festival of world-class proportions undertakes the smoothness of classical structure as water laps its borders and the currents rush by with undeniable grace and fervor.
The two productions witnessed within this serene but utterly traversable town represent a continuing theme of paradox ranging with effort within its tireless soul. Yet both bring to mind the theme of love misunderstood, fleeting and intense but lost.
The visceral piece of power lay within the production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” by Donizetti. Exploring motifs of betrayal, honor and death, it is a story of the sister of a ruler who falls in love with his sworn enemy, a forbidden romance to be sure. Interrelations of religion, arranged marriages and insanity plague the characters in a time where text messages would have solved a simple problem (or ironically, perhaps, would have made it more complicated).
The music resonates within an interesting casting of performers ranging from Uruguay to Mexico to Cuba, each invigorating a different vitality within their characters. While the portrayal of a betrayed enemy is ripe with sacrifice and suffering, it is Eglise Gutierrez as Lucia who truly brought down the house.
In tandem, her range of vibrato is stunning but the glow that seemed to surround her gave the energy of the piece even more luminiscence. Her intention of love in certain sequences borders on lyrical. But it is within her tragic downfall after murdering her arranged husband on her wedding night that received the audience’s gratitude.
In the crucial scene, which shows her wandering through a massive celebration ball in the castle where everyone speaks her name, the music begins with an ode that many will remember in modern times as the space high opera sequence from “The 5th Element”. However unlike that pre-recorded visual entertainment, listening to the notes being reached in unquestioned pitch with emotional resonance “live” highlights the power of such performance. As Gutierrez runs her hands along the various guests, she echoes the whispering sounds of her heartbreak as a flutist in the wide ranging orchestra dances with her from the pit below showing a true balance of the visual and sound.
An exquisite strength of the Olavinlinna Castle structure in terms of mounting a production such as this (which becomes apparent at the final call) is the number of players possible on stage at one time. This is true especially in the chorus sequence of “Lucia” where the stage (which takes two months to build and is set into the castle’s full courtyard) stretches endlessly in tandem with its opulently attired thespians. The symphony of hearing dozens of their highly trained voices singing with vigor at one time is thrilling and one not seen at this skill level in many places.
“Lucia” was impressive and the final image of death with love waiting within the light said it all.
The other production experienced, “Madama Butterfly” speaks to the vision of two separate words divided, if only by their increased lack of understanding. Like “Lucia”, it is bordered within the ideal of truly wanting but nevertheless being ignorant of what one cannot have.
While the lead performance of Mina Yamazaki as “Butterfly” provided tangible structure of love unrequited (especially in the early second-act sequence where she explains her tenacity to her lady-in-waiting), the initial block of the opera, simply because of its narrative progression, plays a little slow.
As many attendees related later though, “Butterfly” viscerally becomes about the believability of such a woman remaining blindly committed to a man thousands of miles away. Its relevance today becomes as much of a binding element as anything else though the difference in comparison to “Lucia” is that it was simply a miscommunication and not a blind love.
One also distinct difference between the two operas were the moments of silence and tendency allowed in “Lucia” versus “Butterfly” which allowed the former to breathe with a more continued level of foreboding. Both offered distinct strengths but the lingering ovation of “Lucia” proved its mettle.
Led earlier on a backstage tour by the undeniable Olli Tuunanen (who later welcomed “Club Members” arriving for the festival at the airport with an aria of his own exceptional dexterity), the differences of committing to a performance in a castle like this become much more defined through the details. With a lack of space and the necessity of tight spaces and staircases, one is always aware of what is going on in direct vicinity of the action. For example, during lengthy scenes where the chorus of many dozens needs to remain close but unseen, a large stone dock behind the castle (probably used originally as a mooring) offers a spectacular view while the music can be heard in vision inside.
Discussing the ideas of the festival with artistic director Jari Hamalainen, the thought becomes a mixture of classical structure and the use of space within such a historical arena. With a calendar that runs an entire mid-summer month, visiting performers can also integrate and experience the area. His casting from a wide swath of places shows a democracy of inventiveness which truly can make an opera (as seen with the production of “Lucia” which featured a majority of its leading cast hailing from South America). This kind of diversity also extends within the social media interaction Hamalainen is truly embracing which again speaks to the modern structure. Entitled “Opera By You“, the festival, in this context, is sponsoring a YouTube competition which will allow burgeoning composers to compete to have their work selected to be performed on this world class stage along with great works of everyone from Wagner to Mozart.
Another personage in the form of Matias Tosi, who plays Cesare Angelotti in the festival’s new production of Puccini’s “Tosca”, spoke of the interaction among the performers which at times is not available in other companies, especially with the level of diversity here allowed by having 5 full productions revolving each season. Having hailed from Argentina but now living in Germany, Tosi started off as a dancer before making his way into roles with a newly trained bass voice. As a soloist, he has more stage time than a member of the chorus but one angle related is that the major stars and conductors are open for advice and not beyond reach for discussion. Colleagues go to see other’s performances here which harks back to the origins of Old Hollywood. Echoed earlier by artistic director Hamalainen, many of the chorus, at times, are students trying to making their bones in the business. What better training ground than a beautiful setting such as Savonlinna which attracts some of the most accomplished performers in the world.
Art takes many different forms within the Finnish landscape with the Opera Festival in Savonlinna being a distinct draw. Since its vision relishes within the schedule of summer when many Finns are on holiday, the surrounding area offers the ability to both relax and be illuminated.
Near Savonlinna within the texture of a small steamboat ride on the S/S Heinavesi, the infinity of Art Centre Retretti offers a continuation of irony within the reference of art. Though boasting a diverse collection of Finnish painters, its true distinction lies within a series of underground caves that serve as a revolving exhibition of changing perceptions, many based in gothic visions undeniably modern.
Within the retreating chasms created by explosive charges and only possible for access during the summer, an inverse functionality encumbered largely between the temperature core and the texture of the lighting gives a ghostly hue to the underground proceedings.
The initial perceptions paint towards a subterranean “Alice In Wonderland” where the heads of dolls roam free in endless search of their respective bodies as peering eyes stretch through the darkness. Pekka Kauhanen, whose work encapsulates this installation with pieces such as “Moon Lady” and “Under The Northern Sky”, highlights the theory of disjunction within these outlays along with “Wintereisse” which takes up the entire visage of a wide cavern utilizing reflecting pools. Kauhanen understands the necessity of tone and mood but creates a new vision by taking on this unique underground canvas.
The more conventional artwork of Retretti also reflects its surrounding identity. Beginning with “A View Over The Castle Olavinlinna” [1864/Victoria Aberg] (where the Opera Festival was held), the conception shows the balance of nature and technology that balances itself while “Rowing To The Graveyard” [1861/Alexandra Frosterus-Saltin] shows an inherent visage of mortality with an infinite stillness. More lighthearted tenderness is reflected in “At The Piano” [1889/Venny Soldan-Brofeldt] & “Hospital Visiting Hour” [1893/Anna Sahlsten] which, while showing hardship, reflects a genuine compassion.
Other surrounding perceptions of art integrated into the life machinations of the region flitter in paradoxical mixtures.
The Anttolanhovi Art & Design Villas, on the hilly winding roads outside the city, held architectural competitions to contemplate the structure of their living residences creating new and bold ideas in terms of modern living. Reflective in ways of Stanley Kubrick’s 60s idealism of the New Millenium, the symmetry of some of the structures move against the ideal of rigid angles but indeed makes them its own. The space, though compacted, gives a sense of breathe while not wasting any curvature. The levity of the building themselves is built almost into the ground allowing for a coolness flow without a regimented set of rules constricting the builder.
Using a parallel reflection but within centuries old technology, the Kerimaki Church functions as an irony in its own existence and structure. While remaining cool throughout the entire year, the building’s true strength lies not in the vaulting structure of its zenith which itself is a breakthrough of wood building technology in its time but within its actual conception which is a story unto itself. The builder charged with creating the church back in the 1840s disagreed with his bosses over the construction but eventually won out because of a funding shortfall.
Revealed by one of the resident historic guides, the church itself is built many meters above the ground which when looking beneath trap doors shows the sand base. This, plus an innovative use of later woodwork in the frames allows the building to “breathe” because of space between the wooden planks held in force by resin. Because of the builder’s unconventional thinking, the wood, brimmed with this insulator, has not rotted away giving the impression of a resolute church undamaged by Finland’s fierce winters.
While the country amidst the Savonlinna region has its hidden treasures, the abilities and forward thinking of the Finnish ideal also takes place in plain sight within the gate city of Helsinki. While virile with a texture of Russian architecture that in turn contemplates the city into a functional grid, the personification hidden within the city streets also unearths a burgeoning ideal of design.
Design Forum Finland, located just off of the city center, understands the need to highlight different practical applications of this momentum. From the punk baby clothes styling of Tiia Vanhatapio to the Bond-esque marine designs of Aivan!, the vision bases its strengths on real world functionality.
Taking this blend one step farther, the fashion perceptions of IvanaHelsinki, a clothing line that highlights the bridge between the cinematic, the functional and high style wear, specifies its flagship store right off the main boulevard. With the designer herself due to attend the American Film Institute’s Graduate Program this coming fall, the line between the two worlds continues to blur as the runways of Paris, Milan & New York welcome her ideals that reflect in fabrics both vibrant and counter-cultural.
Design hotels also have become the rage with boutiques understanding the need for a present experience for the modern traveler. The Hotel Klaus K, owned by American-born Mark Skvorc, uses W style lighting and smooth edges along with a suite design that both embraces the consumer but also gives them a sense of style. From the sloping beds to the distinct lighting structure and embedded technology, Klaus K reflects the continuing evolution of the hotel experience, especially in a city where the dark and light collide in unexpected ways.
The paradoxes of Finland rest within its secret treasures. The gem of the Opera Festival in Savonlinna, resolute within its old world location of Castle Olavinlinna but with the vision of “the curtain that never falls”, reflects this distinct ideal. The continuation of the Retretti Installation and the practical design applications in Helsinki show an increasing but humble integration of the new Finnish standard where life and art continue to mix.
Walt Disney Pictures just provided IR with a new still from the upcoming 3D live action feature “Alice In Wonderland” directed by Tim Burton (“Sweeney Todd”) and starring the pictured Mia Wasikowska as the title character. The movie will unfurl March 5, 2010.