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Kullervo, the son of Kalervo, is apparently orphaned when Unto sets Kalervo’s house on fire. Unto arranges for Kullervo to be apprenticed to a smith as a herd-boy. Kullervo is provoked into murdering the smith’s wife when his father’s knife breaks on a stone maliciously baked in his bread. Soon, a friend discovers that Kullervo’s parents are still alive, but the reunion goes awry when the parents realise that Kullervo is a murderer. A blind singer appears in his dream with the grim tale of Kullervo’s supposed ravishing of his long-lost sister. Kullervo realises there is no way out, but resolves to commit one final act of revenge by burning Unto’s house. He hopes to find comfort with his friend Kimmo, but when he finds that Kimmo has lost his mind, Kullervo plunges himself into the fire.
The Chorus describes the fratricide between Kalervo and Unto. The feud culminates in the destruction by Unto of Kalervo's house and his folk.
The arson he has committed preys upon Unto's mind. His wife reproaches him for having failed to kill Kalervo's son Kullervo.
Kullervo, with his childhood friend Kimmo, has been enslaved and is harboring revenge. His rage is directed at Kimmo, and he tries to kill his friend.
Unto's wife suspects that Kullervo is aware of the fact that Unto destroyed his father's house. She urges her husband to slay Kullervo, but instead Unto decides to sell the youth to the Smith as a herd-boy.
The Smith's young wife waits for Kullervo to return from guarding the cattle. A Hunter comes by and reveals that Kullervo has in fact destroyed the Smith's cattle. After returning, Kullervo quarrels violently with the Smith's wife and in the end kills her with the remnants of his father's old knife. (Its blade had broken when it had struck a stone that the woman had baked inside Kullervo's loaf of bread.)
Kimmo has discovered that Kalervo and his wife had miraculously survived the destruction of their house. Kimmo plans to reunite Kullervo with his parents.
While Kalervo relates his fortunes, his wife mourns her daughter Ainikki who has disappeared.
Kullervo, now a fugitive, unwittingly comes to his parents' house. They do not recognize each other at first, but the truth finally emerges once Kimmo has arrived. Because Kullervo reveals that he is a murderer, Kalervo wants to be rid of him. However, the mother demands that Kullervo should stay; she does not want to lose her son again. Kimmo, the messenger who came too late, feels responsible for what has happened.
Scene 4 (Kullervo's Dream)
Kullervo's rage, his humiliatingly unsuccessful affair with the Smith's young wife, and the fact that he does not get on with his father - all this erupts in a dream. In it he encounters The Blind Singer, who sings "The Song of a Sister's Ravishing". Kullervo's vanished sister Ainikki also appears in the dream.
Kalervo does not want to acknowledge Kullervo as his son. Kullervo retaliates by revealing that he has unwittingly slept with his own sister. It is now impossible for him to stay at home; and Kullervo decides to set off to exact revenge for all his evils by burning down Unto's house.
On his way to Unto's house Kullervo encounters Tiera and two strangers. The Hunter also joins them. Kimmo intercepts Kullervo and reports that his parents are dead. Kullervo is determined to exact his vengeance by killing all of Unto's people. This he proceeds to do. After the slaughter he sets out to seek Kimmo, in whom he sees a glimmer of hope and light.
Kullervo finds Kimmo at home, alone and insane. Kimmo is hurrying on his way toward the land of the fortunate, carrying an important message. He does not recognize Kullervo, but imagines him to be a Christ-like figure who carries the world's sins on his shoulders.
Kullervo bids farewell to his friend and takes his life by throwing himself into the fire.
© Aulis Sallinen
Now whilst this piece was initially staged in quick succession in Helsinki and Los Angeles and with some considerable success, apart from some performances in Lubeck (more on that later), it had disappeared from sight. That’s a great pity since Bern demonstrated what a superbly gripping piece of music drama Kullervo is in a tense and atmospheric production by Dieter Kaegi. Kullervo follows a similar path to Sibelius’ eponymous symphony which itself brought the epic verse drama Kalevala to international attention.
Using Aleksis Kivi’s stage dramatization, itself taken from Elias Lönnrott’s 19th Century gathering and publication of the ancient sagas as his source, Sallinen has fashioned his own libretto focusing on the violent and doom-laden Kullervo as his anti-hero. It’s certainly not a happy tale – Kullervo remains a misunderstood outsider throughout his misadventures culminating in a suicidal leap into flames, but not before waging spectacular and equally violent revenge on his supposed enemies. Although it is in fact, difficult to sympathise with any of the characters in this saga of inter-clan vengeance and societal ostracism, Sallinen makes superbly fluent music-drama from his material and like so many of his countrymen proves that Finnish is a particularly poetic language when sung.
Similarly the chorus excelled themselves in their complex passage-work. All round, and in particular assembling an entirely Finnish-speaking cast, this was an unexpectedly inspiring and satisfying event.
Phill Ward, Opera Now, 01/06/2006
There is hardly a composer who represents the musical creations of a land as completely as Aulis Sallinen does those of Finland.
Sallinen believes in the power of music, that it makes the cruelty of the world more bearable. His music has endurance and lives from strong contrasts. Dominant, bass-heavy string sounds stand opposed to wildly expressive wind passages; soft string movements to hard rhythmic sections. The Bern Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Heinz Drewanz, gives this expressiveness a vivid sound language. That the practiced opera ear runs into some old acquaintances is characteristic of a post-modern opera language exhausted by the sum total of experiences during the development of the 20th century.
But Sallinen is a master in the treatment of language. Kullervo’s intensely expressive arioso, his father’s speech song, or the blind singer’s song style, testify to a well thought-out stage language.
Sallinen’s opera displays an original and new perspective in the wide European opera scene.
Hanspeter Renggli, Der Bund, 02/02/2006
This is an opera that can get under the skin; throughout a sort of combination of international theatre and socially critical folk theatre, brutal and contemporary, as myths often are.
Sallinen exerts a compelling, almost eerie, influence with a strictly functional music that serves only the drama and its intensification. Quite a bit seems to be familiar from opera history; style is used as a means of expression for designating emotional content. There are the deep basses and the timpani of a percussion ensemble placed behind the stage, which create the drama and deadly atmosphere. There is the sharp cluster, reminiscent of Alban Berg’s “Lulu”, which marks the murder of the blacksmith’s young wife. There are echoes of Finnish folk music, of church and film music.
Alfred Zimmerlin, Neue Zuercher Zeitung, 02/02/2006
On Monday, University College Opera gave the British Premiere of Sallinen's hugely impressive opera of 1992, and coincidentally celebrated the company's 50th anniversary. Kullervo may sound "easy" on a Darmstadt avant-garde scale: the choral writing has a Prokofiev-like immediacy, the vocal lines are rewardingly singable, the piquant orchestration never covers the voices…The action…underlines the universailty of myth: the eponymous hero echoes Wagner's Siegmund and everyone's Orestes and Oedipus. Like the Oresteia, it presents an endless cycle of revenge, and all within the family. But Sallinen doesn't present it in a simple, linear way…Lovely Nordic gloom.
Rodney Milnes, The Times, 01/03/2001
…his ability to create atmosphere and delineate character is masterly. In Kullervo the music ranges from ferociously combatitive to tenderly loving. Sallinen uses the chorus to great effect, with verses sung from the Kalevala, sometimes commenting, sometimes taking part in the action… The audience gave the composer a standing ovation.
Erkki Arni, Opera Now, 01/12/1995
... potently modern and tinglingly dramatic ... the power accrues unremittingly.
, Financial Times
Kullervo unites the disparate strands of Sallinen's previous operas into a dramatic and musical synthesis that perhaps even surpasses his previous output. Indeed, it would be tempting to view it as his masterpiece were he not likely enough to produce another still better in the future.
His is an unmistakably 'northern' voice whose orchestral palette evokes inclement weathers and stark, wind-beaten landscapes, but it also has a lyrical heart of quite unashamed lushness and melodic opulence.
, Sunday Times
... the most potent new theatre music I've heard for a long while ... Kullervo is an extraordinary and major work.
, The Independent
... a towering musical experience ...
, Daily News
... one of the most eloquent scores of recent years ...
, San Jose Mercury