CLASSCOL

The mastery in “Kullervo” extends from the work itself — the words and music by Aulis Sallinen — to the splendor of the production at the Music Center. However strange Peter Hemmings’ gamble may have appeared, when he announced in 1990 that his own Music Center Opera planned to sponsor the world premiere of a contemporary opera by a relatively unknown composer, from a country both geographically and culturally remote, the gamble has been handsomely won. Sallinen has fashioned his story from pages in Finland’s dark, sprawling epic poem “Kalevala.” Kullervo lurks in those pages as an anti-hero, a loser turned plunderer and murderer by a world into which he doesn’t fit. Sallinen’s libretto exerts its own twists on the legend, and this is all to the good. What rattles around in the murky pages of “Kalevala” as hard-edged facts become transmuted in Sallinen’s own poetry into a beautifully conceived blend of fact and fantasy, moving in and out of reality as easily as the music moves through its vast stylistic vocabulary. As Kalle Holmberg’s production spans the gap between dream and reality, and between mythic time and modernity (so that, for example, a pop ballad singer with microphone and backup synthesizer shares the stage at one point with others in medieval robes), so do words and music hang tantalizingly free of definition. The three hours of “Kullervo” sweep through some remarkable music: sad, haunting arias, abrasive confrontations, and a short burst of leavening hilarity by a quartet of drunkards on their way to perpetrate a massacre. Sallinen’s music establishes him as a doctrinaire conservative, while pointing up the uselessness of such pat identifications. He draws upon the language of tonality, but shifts his harmonic focus easily and often. If further identification is needed, think Shostakovich tinged with Janacek’s exoticism, a dab of Strauss here, an authentic-sounding ripoff of contemporary Finnish cabaret there. The sounds themselves are wonderful: great, rolling choral sonorities, streamers of audible flame from the orchestra. Sallinen has been copiously recorded, mostly on the Ondine and Finlandia labels: three operas including, as of this week, “Kullervo,” three of his five symphonies, quite a lot of chamber music. He demands, and deserves, attention. So does the enlightened work of the Finnish forces on our stage. Start the list with Seppo Nurmimaa’s geometrically patterned backdrop that changes fantastically with the lighting, and his costumes that range from regal robes for the principals to modern street clothes for the chorus (a statement as to the opera’s timelessness, and a boon to the costume budget). Continue with the sophistication of Holmberg’s stage direction, a way of creating enormous impressions with the barest elements that some local directors might profitably study. To these marvels add the overpowering vocal presence of the great Jorma Hynninen in the title role, and of Eeva-Liisa Saarinen in the harrowing role of Kullervo’s tortured mother. End with the masterful musical leadership of Ulf Soederblom, splendidly seconded by the awesome precision of the chorus (misidentified here last week as being the same as the Helsinki University Chorus, which it isn’t) and our own pit band, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, more resonant and more responsive by far than the Helsinki orchestra on the recording. Beyond most of our expectations, I would safely guess, “Kullervo” turns out to be a towering musical experience, and an experience as well in a level of stagecraft and production integrity we would do well to observe. One performance remains, tomorrow night; be advised, be urged. Along the Finnish line: Esa-Pekka Salonen’s three weeks here, which ended last weekend, showed our young conqueror-designate in several lights, not all complimentary. The Mahler Fourth, the first week, was easily the low point: a misreading full of wilful distortions and mere smartass gimmickry. At the other end, however, was all of last weekend’s program: Haydn’s 80th Symphony with its cheeky innovations firmly in place, a most elegant performance of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto by Cho-Liang Lin, and a clean, bright, dry-eyed reading that did more for the Brahms Second Symphony than I might have believed possible. A conductor who can deliver this level of performance is one worth waiting for. To reach your seat in Houston’s new Wortham Opera House, you have to ride up, on an escalator bordered with weird sculptures probably filched from Darth Vader’s armory, then back down some stairs to the theater. You arrive in a mood for the quiet devotions of Wagner’s “Parsifal,” but this is destroyed by a pianist in the lobby, filling the space with cocktail-hour reveries. You decide that maybe Los Angeles isn’t the cultural pits after all. The “Parsifal” was Robert Wilson’s creation. Wilson hangs on Los Angeles’ conscience, after the failures, in consecutive years, to finance his “Civil Wars” and his “Einstein on the Beach,” both some kind of important masterwork. The “Parsifal,” co-produced with the Hamburg Opera, was a latter-day reminder of what we missed: stagecraft of the utmost subtlety and poignance, a vocabulary of light, scenery and movement that seems to flow unimpeded from the work itself. A deaf man could have realized the music in this supremely moving evening. Christoph Eschenbach, who now heads the Houston Symphony and often crosses the line to conduct for the Opera as well, led a musical performance worthy of the setting. Houston may not know how to build or maintain an opera house, but the company itself, under David Gockley’s 20-year leadership, has made an enviable mark in innovative repertory and productions. (The present house opened, in 1987, with the world premiere of “Nixon in China.”) Filling out last week’s playbill were two highly contrasting operas based on the “Beauty and the Beast” legend: the new “Desert of Roses” by the avant-garde-cultural-terrorist-turned-pussycat Robert Moran, and an updated version of Andre Gretry’s 1771 “Zemire et Azor” in which, to cite one instance, the father of Beauty, a medieval Persian prince in the original, is now an American vacuum-cleaner salesman. Get the idea?