Pharos-Tribune

August 20, 2013

Enjoy opera in a castle on Finnish island

by Dave Zuchowski
CNHI News Service

— It would probably shock the heck out of Danish knight Erik Axelsson Tott, who founded Olavinlinna Castle in 1475, to learn that what started out as a defensive fortification has since become the home of a summer opera festival that draws thousands of opera lovers from all around the world to the lovely lake country of southeastern Finland.

Through the centuries, Olavinlinna (literally St. Olaf’s Castle) was added on to and assaulted by foreign invaders several times, but it still stands, a massive stone citadel that claims the title of the northern-most, still-standing Medieval stone castle.

Remarkably preserved and built on a small granite island and surrounded by Europe’s fourth largest lake, Lake Saimaa, the restored castle offers tours daily that give visitors a look inside the circular towers, the king’s massive dining room, the central courtyard as well as several other rooms large and small. Just be prepared to climb up a stone staircase or two along the way, a formidable task for the physically challenged.

Today, Olavinlinna’s major claim to fame its opera festival, held each July when the evening sky can still be lit by the fading rays of the sun until 10:30 p.m. or even later. Because the castle is connected to the mainland town of Savonlinna by two footbridges that cross the lake, both the well-heeled and those of lesser means approach the festival on foot. There are no fancy limos pulling up to the entranceway here.

Still, for all, it’s exhilarating to make the march to the castle, where the Finnish flag breezes from the top of one of its three towers. People like to stop along the way and take one another’s photo with the castle in the background, listen to a group of talented children singing nursery rhymes on the access island, then enter the castle courtyard through a massive portal.

The initial idea for the Savonlinna Opera Festival came from Finnish opera diva and ardent patriot, Aino Ackte, in 1907, the year Finland democratically elected its first Parliament by universal suffrage. While attending a political meeting in the castle, Ackte saw the possibility of staging an opera festival in this very romantic setting.

The first opera festival was staged in 1912 and grew in renown until the First World War and ensuing economic difficulties put the festival on hold for nearly four decades. Ardent supporters, after years of planning, staged a televised production of "Fidelio" in 1967 that put Savonlinna back on the operatic map.

From its early beginnings as a one-week festival, Savonlinna has grown into a month-long international festival that draws an audience of 60,000 yearly. On an artistic par with many of Europe’s best music festivals, Savonlinna presented six operas, a children’s opera and Verdi’s "Requiem" for the 2013 season.

While I relished the experience of being able to sit through a staging of Verdi’s "Macbeth," aptly performed in an old castle, (how mood evocative can you get?), I also marveled at the superb artistry achieved by the production staff, the orchestra, soloists and chorus. Even more to my amazement is the fact that the small town of some 27,500 residents is able to accommodate the phalanx of musicians, technicians and singers, not to mention the audience.

Initially, I questioned how well the acoustics might fare in a stone castle with rock-hard walls, but I was amazed by the superb sound starting with the overture to "La Traviata," the first in my series of Savonlinna operas. Because 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of both Giuseppi Verdi and Richard Wagner, Savonlinna decided to stage Verdi’s "Masked Ball," "Macbeth," and "La Traviata" as well as his "Requiem" and Wagner’s "Lohengrin," the final opera of the three I was able to see on three consecutive evenings.

Rounding out the 2013 season were Saint-Saens’ "Samson and Delilah" and Tchaikovsky’s "Eugene Onegin," a production of the Mikailovsky Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia, which also produced "A Masked Ball."

The 2014 season runs from July 4 through August 2 with six operas and Mozart’s "Requiem," which will be held in nearby Kerimaki in the world’s largest wooden church. The acoustics there are expected to be superb as well.

Dave Zuchowski is a travel writer for CNHI News Service. Contact him at owlscribe@yahoo.com.