Helsinki's 1992-built ‘neo-art-deco’ opera house is perhaps the most beautiful and user-friendly in any European capital – even more so when it’s filled with Finns. The repertoire of its home company ranges from Monteverdi to Sariaaho, but last weekend it was ‘old chestnut’ Puccini’s La Boheme that filled the petite, rotund auditorium.
After something of a year-long Sibelius trail, it seems strange to think of listening to Puccini in Finland – a country with a musical identity seasoned with minor keys, silences and suggestion. But some of the darkness of Finnish ideology fed into this rendition of Puccini’s heart-on-sleeve music: notably stark, industrial design and a chilling sense of the cruelty of winter. Reto Nickler’s unimposing production is a fundamentally musical one; the ‘moments’ from the score are fulfilled with some simple and obvious touches – Mimi and Rodolfo’s wonder into the blacks at the end of the first scene perhaps the finest and yet most obvious of them. But some hammy and disengaged acting also stalked this opening scene – the pantomime of the artists’ squabbling was a little over-played, and Rodolfo combined his ‘Be mine!’ proclamation to Mimi with the tidying up of wine bottles. Perhaps that was irrelevant though, because once Helena Juntenen’s Mimi arrived, you couldn’t take your eyes off her.
Juntunen undeniably has something special. Though her voice is agile and beautiful, it wouldn’t place her in the highest echelons of world singing – yet. And still her complete performances are unique; she has a poise and presence that are extraordinary. Mimi might be too a obvious role for her – a wide-eyed, charming and immature character that Juntunen slipped seamlessly into – and thus it was at times difficult to separate the working opera singer for her illness-ridden alter-ego. But there was a rare belief and commitment to her performance. She somehow communicates the physiology of her technique when she sings, and by her on-stage death at the opera’s conclusion, you felt her exhaustion as she struggled to give birth to each of her still ravishing lines.
Ari Grönthal’s Rodolfo was a little disappointing – his voice is attractive, but he wasn’t entirely in control of it and some of the big vocal moments lurched uncomfortably to their apex (it makes you realise how much some of this music demands). The chorus of adults and children were dealt with very suavely by Nickler; they never got to close to the protagonists, and the inclusion of a chillingly frozen vision of the children’s chorus at the start of the second act was effective. Perhaps the finest voice on offer was that of Juna Kotliainen playing Marcello, whose rounded, chocolatey tone is particularly pleasing. Pietro Rizzo conducted with great conviction, and the orchestral playing was concurrently forthright, sensitive, and exceptionally musical.
The Finnish National Opera (Suomen Kansallisooppera) is a company built on quality, demonstrable in this double-cast production which highlights the talent on offer in Finnish opera, even when performing a staple of the Italian repertoire. But we mostly knew that already. What’s fascinating is to see an established opera come to life, full of its implicit international flavour, in the relatively small capital city of a relatively small country. Almost every seat was occupied by a grateful and unpretentious crowd of locals, who could have picked up a ticket for as little as €9. Not bad for the most pleasant and well-designed opera house I’ve had the good fortune to visit.
[this review was written on the 15 January]