PERFORMER: Jorma Hynninen, Eeva-Liisa Saarinen; Tapiola Chamber Choir, Finnish Chamber Singers, Finnish RSO/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
CATALOGUE NO: ODE 872-2 DDD
Pronounced too advanced by the Finnish Opera in the Twenties (its libretto, previously rejected by Sibelius, was later reset by the younger Madetoja), unstaged until 1963 (five years after the composer’s death) and triumphantly revived at the Savonlinna Festival in the early Seventies, Aarre Merikanto’s only opera, Juha, inevitably invites comparison with the contemporaneous operas of Janácek. But, though it exhibits a similar and welcome concision (three acts playing for under two hours) and a plot involving a repressed country girl, a crippled husband old enough to be her father and a charismatic Bluebeard figure who seduces and eventually abandons her, there’s little of Janácek’s sinewy obsessiveness to keep the tension high, or of much in-depth character development.
With its whole-tone harmony and rich palette of orchestral colours, Merikanto’s musical style evokes Debussy, Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov, its vocal lines propelled by vernacular speech-rhythms and tellingly placed snatches of lyricism. It’s an attractive work, despite a certain reticence, and the all-Finnish cast, led by the ever-dependable Jorma Hynninen and supported by outstanding playing from the Finnish RSO under the sympathetic direction of Jukka-Pekka Saraste, present the best possible case for an understandably neglected but rewarding slice of Finland’s operatic history. Antony Bye