AULIS SALLINEN (b.1935): King Lear, Op. 76.
Catalogue Number: 05Q074
Reference: ODV 4010
Description: Having outlived his aphorism about opera (that a success would make him happy, and failure would make a lot of other people happy) by becoming Finland's pre-eminent opera composer, beyond any possibility of failure by the time he started work on Lear, Sallinen, with nothing left to prove, produced his finest operatic achievement to date. The composer's libretto distils Shakespeare's complicated, exaggeratedly tragic play into a series of scenes which streamline the story and the cast of characters, bringing the most important center stage. Shakespeare's complex, contradictory characters are presented with the startling clarity and unclutteredness necessary for an operatic presentation in which a sung phrase manages to encapsulate a page of dialogue and stage direction. The music is remarkable for its constant melodic inspiration and the sheer momentum of the work. Scene follows scene with exhausting intensity, the tension never released as tragedy (Lear), high drama, intrigue (Gloucester) pathos (the Fool, here given an important commentary rôle, highlighting important developments), bathos (Poor Tom) intersect and succeed one another; Sallinen's leitmotivic delineation of character and situation, unusually concentrated even for him, is in no small part responsible for this sense of compressed structure despite the work's expansive dimensions. The role of Lear, written for Salminen, is one of Wagnerian power and massiveness, though the other principals are not far behind in this regard; all are superbly written. Even by Sallinen's exemplary standards this is vocal writing of the highest order. Obsessive ostinati, an instantly recognizable recurring feature of Sallinen's music, occur sporadically, most notably in Lear's mad scene where he imagines putting his scheming daughters on trial, a tour de force of deranged logic and formality. The composer's personal imprint is all over the distinctive orchestration as well; even this comparatively traditional approach to operatic composition couldn't be by anybody else. The production is modern, with minimal staging and clever, economical lighting effects; a castle is a stone wall lined with doors and a few pieces of furniture; a forest, four blighted tree-trunks, and so on. An incongruous mixture of costumes conveys the identity and status of characters with perfect clarity, almost to the point of caricature. The results are visually striking, though making little attempt at realism or subtlety, and have the virtue of offering no distraction from the music, especially the stunning parts provided by the composer for the elite principal cast. Filmed in television drama style, close up on the many solo and ensemble numbers, echoing the music's insistence on the pre-emience of character, expressed through exquisitely judged and executed vocal characterization. Matti Salminen (bass), Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo), Taina Piira, Satu Vihavainen (sopranos), Jorma Hynninen (baritone), Finnish National Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Okko Kamu. NTSC all regions. 16:9 widescreen. PCM stereo. 164 min.