Wednesday 18 March 2015

Sibelius raw, vibrant Kullervo, choreographed

Jean Sibelius; Kullervo op 7, 1892  is a work so powerful that it seems to break out from the restraints of orchestral performance. Even now, the piece seems surprisngly modern.. Musically, it's explosive; fabulously "primitive" sounds which presage The Rite of Spring. Wild, whirling passages that suggest a driving snowstorm, a relentless battle to the death and implacable doom. Kullervo, whose story is told in the Kalevala, was an abused, brutalized child, whose inheritance was stolen, and he was cruelly mistreated by his uncle. He sees a lovely maiden in the forest and wants to posses her. Since he has no social graces, he rapes her. Then she tells her story, how she'd become lost in the forest while picking strawberries. She turns out to be his long-lost sister. All this, against a background of primeval Nature, in an unyielding climate where summers are fleeting. Perhaps Kullervo is the first anti-hero of this type in literature, and possibly in music. Sibelius may have realized how shockingly savage it was, so ahead of its time.  Although he loved the piece, he withdrew it. It wasn't heard again for nearly 70 years..

Now Kullervo has been choreographed by the Helsinki dance company led by Tero Saarinen, and available on   Definitely worth watching, for it captures the raw, physical spirit of the music extremely well. The set is at once modern and primeval. Sharp angular lines evoking the arctic landscape,and the harsh nature of the drama that unfolds and the angular music itself.  Metallic surfaces, harsh lighting: this staging suggest at once both the ancient nature of the saga and the brave new world of technological innovation that is modern Finland.  

In the first two sections,this dichotomy is evoked by two principal dancers. The female dancer is dressed in blue and white, the Finnish colours, crisp and pure against a background of earth tones and darkness. Her movements dart across the stage with the freedom of a wild bird. It's easy to see why the male dancer is fascinated. In the third section, where Kullervo meets his sister, the focus is on the singing. But thereafter, the orchestra surges forth, and the choreography becomes wonderfully expressive. When Kullervo goes to battle, in atonement for his sin, the male dancer is surrounded by an army of menacing men, closing in on him  in his struggle - wonderfully rigged, athletic movements. 

In the passage "The Silence of the Women" a group of female dancers undulate. Their simple white shifts as pristine as lilies, yet their movements are grave and solemn, as if they're in mourning for lost innocence. When Kullervo dies, the dancer representing him is alone.  He's half-naked, like the day he was born, in a much more innocent time. His arms flail, his body twists. Suddenly his arms swing in wild circles, as if propelled by invisible winds. The "Northern Lights" behind him become blindingly bright. The dancer is caught in some strange vortex. The whole stage turns, and the dancer moves away while the ensemble, barely individuated, moves like a dark mass centre stage. Suddenly, the light flares up once more, and the dancer is seen, It is lit so brightly that you can see the muscles in his stomach contort.  Such ends the tale of the cursed Kullervo......

Musical values are very high. Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducts  thje Finnish National Opera Orchestra,  which is top notch. Ville Rusanen sings Kullervo, while Samuli Poutanen dances the part. Johanna Rusanen-Kartano sings the sister, while the part is danced by Terhi Räsänen. The choreographer is Tero Saarinen.

Photo credits : Finnish National Opera / Finnish National Ballet / Sakari Viika 2015

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