Amfion pro musica classica

Review: A Stranger in Sicily – the premiere of the new opera by Paolo Rosato at Metropolia, Helsinki

After the premiere,  composer and libretist  in the middle holding flowers

After the premiere, composer and libretist in the middle holding flowers

Tero Halonen as Lars Cleen

Tero Halonen as Lars Cleen

Whoever has visited Northern Italy, Sicily or Calabria has noticed that there are blond and blue-eyed Italians there; they are descendants of the Normans who settled there in medieval times. The first idea for the opera by Paolo Rosato ripened when Rosato was teaching in Trapani, Sicily, where the castle of Erice evokes those ancient times. Therefore the novel of Pirandello’s in which a stranger, a Nordic sailor, stays in Sicily due to the shipwreck of his boat has a certain cultural basis. Yet in the libretto by Walter Zidaric, it has been changed a little so that when Pirandello’s sailor is actively observing his new environment and attending to its life, in the opera he is passive, object of his new community’s hostile attitudes. He is called a ‘beast’ (or bête in French) in the opera, not quite a human being at all, with strange manners, strange language and strange physiognomy. In Pirandello he is Lars Cleen, a Norwegian. In the opera he is made a Finn. However, Finnish is not used in the opera, which is mostly sung in Italian. Only the Finnish folk song Minun kultani kaunis on refers to Finland, when Lars hums it in his hopeless homesickness. In fact, I had heard fragments of the opera in Louvain three years ago. There the audience said the opera is a tribute to Finland since the composer has often stayed in and visited our country. However, one national tune does not make an opera a national one – as little as, say, Glazunov’s Finnish Fantasy is ‘Finnish’ in its style merely due to quoting the folk tune Kukkuu, kukkuu, kaukana kukkuu. When I heard Paolo was going to use the Minun kultani melody, I warned him that the tune is definitely a humorous one in a Finnish context. But here it does not matter: It is part of Lars’s nostalgic souvenirs.

The basic atmosphere of the opera is existential. It portrays a person who is ‘thrown’ (Geworfen as Heidegger puts it) into a world but does not find his place there; he feels alienated. But so is the Italian coastal village community, in which Lars’s hosts – who call Lars Larso – are dominated by one rich man, Don Nica, who is master while others are ‘slaves’. The fisherman Don Pietro Milo has found Larso seriously ill on the shore and taken him to his home out of mere Christian compassion since local hospitals had no place for such a creature. Larso is thus taken care of by Milo’s niece Venerina and her aunt Donna Rosolina. They are scared of this new person, but at the end Venerina and Larso have a baby. However, this does not save the situation; Lars only wants to get out, home, and finally the Swedish boat arrives. Nevertheless, it is too late; Lars in the end gives up on all things and commits suicide. Why he does it remains slightly a mystery.

So this is the plot of this opera, whose music is mostly contemplative, melodious, mostly very singable and sonorous in spite of an avant-gardist and almost atonal tonal language. The original work was written for a large orchestra, but for the Helsinki performance the composer made an arrangement for a 10-membered chamber ensemble. The sound of accordion has an important role in the soundscape of the work. The music in its somewhat minimalist expression is impressive, evoking musica povera. Yet, the climaxes, in which a choir is also needed, are expressionistic and overwhelming.

The production of the opera at Metropolia, together with the Music Society of the University of Helsinki, was a long project; it became possible through support from the Niilo Helander Foundation and the Pacius Memorial Foundation. Metropolia provided singers, the conductor Edward Ananian-Cooper, the stage, correpetition by Ilona Lamberg and the producer Meri-Kukka Muurinen. The University provided the choir under the direction of Kati Pirttimaa and the stage director Jukka von Boehm, and of the singers Tero Halonen, performing the main role of Lars Cleen, also has an academic background. We can be very happy about the result! For Metropolia this was certainly also a pedagogical project for its singers. But it has been able to produce in recent times a lot of highly professional and entertaining stage works. Now the Helsinki audience experienced an avant-garde work by a remarkable Italian composer of the young generation. At the premiere there were people from Helsinki high societies, as well.

The staging by Jukka von Boehm used the stage just as it was appropriate, dividing it into two chambers with space between. The ascetic visual image by Eero Erkamo underlined the basic atmosphere. The lights by Tuukka Törneblom and costumes by Hanna Hakkarainen were just suitable to the story. The characters on stage became clearly profiled. The tempo of events was slow, hesitative, contemplative, existential, which was an enjoyable change from many too fast and noisy contemporary productions. The orchestra played with intensity, and the same has to be said about the choir. Tero Halonen’s role as Lars Cleen was a new achievement for this young tenor, who is actively performing in various operas and productions in Helsinki. He is just the right ‘type’ for the role, a little clumsy and shy Nordic youngster; vocally he mastered excellently the difficult pitches of his role. Matias Haakana was a dramatic tenor in the second role as Don Milo; his voice has a large volume and an electrifying impact on stage in every appearance. Marja Kari also had a singing quality to her voice, with strong expression needed by her role as Venerina. Sirja Pohjanheimo-Vikla was a contrast to her in the role of Rosolina, just suitable by its bright colours. Samuli Takkula was convincing as the patriarchal order in the role of the capitalist Di Nica. The mute role as a Turkish boy by Muhamed Awadi emphasized the highly actual topics of the whole work.

The audience received the premiere with great enthusiasm. There are already plans to bring this production to Italy as well, which it definitely would deserve.

— Eero Tarasti

One Thought on “Review: A Stranger in Sicily – the premiere of the new opera by Paolo Rosato at Metropolia, Helsinki

  1. ipe on 6.10.2015 at 22:17 said:

    Actually it was the conductor of the piece, Edward Ananian-Cooper, who had arranged the opera for a small ensemble, not the composer.


Post Navigation