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Operatic War Is Hell : Premiere Of Sallinen's 'King' Staged In Santa Fe

July 29, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

SANTA FE, N.M. — Aulis Sallinen, 51, is respected, revered, maybe even loved in his native Finland. He has won the coveted Sibelius Award. His country has named him the first Professor of Arts for Life.

Scandinavia has long regarded the composer with special awe, pride and pardonable chauvinism. The rest of the world paid little notice, however, until the Finnish National Opera brought his presumed magnum opus, "The Red Line," to the Metropolitan in New York three summers ago.

Presto. Sallinen was discovered. Suddenly he was fashionable.

Saturday night at the Santa Fe Opera, the mirage built by John Crosby 30 years ago in the New Mexico desert, a Sallinen opera was staged for the first time by an American company. For all we know, this also may have been the first time any Finnish opera was staged by an American company.

If the unhappy event in question is any gauge, this also could be the last time.

The opera is called "The King Goes Forth to France." It is a nice title. It isn't a nice opera.

It wants to be seven or eight nice operas at the same time. There's the rub.

Sallinen is a talented eclectic composer, a solid craftsman, a rugged and thoughtful conservative in a world distorted by the fashionable avant-garde. He thinks allegorical, and he thinks big.

It remains to be seen, however, if he is a man of the theater. It certainly remains to be heard if he is a man of the musical theater.

In "The King"--first performed in 1984 at the Savonlinna Festival and destined, we are told, for Covent Garden--he plunges into a murky, multilayered mass of sociological, political and philosophical contradictions.

He stirs up a lot of goo, produces a myriad sighs, pops, burps, bumbles and bubbles. He tries to probe deep at one moment, contents himself with skimming the slippery surface the next.

In the process, he never makes his intentions perfectly clear. Even worse, he comes perilously close to drowning in his own aesthetic glurp. Not incidentally, he gets precious little aid from his literary collaborator, Paavo Haavikko.

In nearly three sprawling hours, "The King" goes forth in simultaneous quest of black humor, life-and-death satire, silly comedy, an interconnecting network of fraught-with-meaning parables and profound tragedy.

With an uncertain tone and a broad repertory of expressive inflections, the opera tells us that power corrupts, that time is running out, that eros can be either uplifting or degrading (depending on who is doing what to whom), that society is cruel and--oh, yes--war is hell. We thought we already knew all that.

The problems do not lie in the basic theses of the opera, only in their plodding exposition. Sallinen and Haavikko babble onward but not upward about a nice, dumb, potentially sadistic and self-destructive monarch who is threatened by a quasi-futuristic Ice Age. The Ice Age may, or may not, represent the atomic holocaust.

The King decides to seek fulfillment by attacking France, for no particular reason. Suddenly a historic past mingles uncomfortably with a caricature present and a terminally bleak future.

Sallinen tries to tie all these loose, confusing and super-talky dramatic strands together with musical yarn from many sources. We hear lush almost-love music, raucous war music, clever buffo music, oafish Orff music, aggressive neo-Shostakovich music. There also are beguiling hints of folk music, subtle interjections of quoted music.

The score goes on and on and on. It rambles and rumbles with admirable energy at first, with benumbing turgidity after the frost has set in, with crushing bombast by the time the curtain mercifully falls.

The Santa Fe production, however, is brilliant.

Richard Buckley of Oakland conducts with obvious conviction, with passion and a keen ear for precision. The orchestra copes heroically with the massive sonorities. Alfred Kirchner, incipient director of the Vienna Burgtheater, creates imaginative stage pictures within John Conklin's stark, poetic designs and inspires compelling character portraits from his cast.

Mikael Melbye, the young Danish baritone, plays the King with just the right touch of innocence in decay and emits unfailingly healthy lyric sounds. Unfortunately, he mangles the English translation of Stephen Oliver and Erkki Arni.

The King's potential conquests are splendidly delineated by Emily Golden as the demented sensualist, Stephanie Sundine as the almost incorrigible innocent, Joyce Castle as the sleazeball with a heart of bronze and Melanie Helton as the giddy thief-soubrette. For some reason, two of the women are called Caroline, two are called Anne.

James Ramlet offers staunch basso bluster as two crooked prime ministers. Jerold Norman and Robert Galbraith enact the physical and vocal agonies of contrasting Kingly victims with poignant fervor.

When Sallinen's inspirations flag, he calls upon an all-knowing narrator to come to his rescue. The device is a cop-out, but David Garrison, the deft actor in residence, works hard.

Everyone, in fact, works hard. Alas, in vain.

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