Sunday, May 05, 2002

Jarvi uncovers riches in opera

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Finnish symphonist Jean Sibelius was never happy with his only opera, The Maiden in the Tower. It was mounted just once in 1896 and never revived during his lifetime (he died in 1957).

        Although the libretto of the 35-minute opera is weak, there are musical riches within its eight short scenes.

        Maestro Paavo Jarvi, music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, makes a persuasive case for this operatic gem with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra in a new CD on Virgin Classics, almost two decades after his father Neeme Jarvi's world-premiere recording.

        Composed after Sibelius visited Bayreuth in 1894, some of the opera's atmosphere and long-breathed vocal lines echo Wagner. But it is the breathtaking choruses and sweeping orchestral canvases that make the biggest impression and form a rich backdrop to this mundane little story.

        The lovely Maiden is imprisoned in a tower by the evil Bailiff for spurning his advances. She is saved by her Lover, and by the good-hearted Chatelaine, who locks up the Bailiff and sets the Maiden free. It is sung in Swedish.

        Although the Overture is not the most interesting music, Mr. Jarvi injects it with life and color, and his wind players rise to the occasion.

        Solveig Kringelborn is radiant as the Maiden, and her big aria “Santa Maria” is the picture of prayerful desperation. The love duet with tenor Lars-Erik Jonsson exudes youthful passion in a beautifully written, Romeo and Juliet-like scene. Baritone Garry Magee (the Bailiff) and mezzo Lilli Paasikivi (the Chatelaine) are convincing as the forces of evil and good.

        The Ellerhein Girls' Choir and the Estonian National Male Choir add a buoyant presence in choruses colored by folk-like tunes. The final chorus is a glorious ode to joy.

        In the orchestral interludes, we find the best of Sibelius' nature music: beautiful wind themes, sweeping strings and glowing textures.

        The album also includes Sibelius' Incidental Music to Pelleas et Melisande. Mr. Jarvi plumbs extraordinarily dark textures from the outset; “At the Castle Gate” is noble, broad and imposing. His Estonian forces perform stunningly: strings are plush; the winds seem to speak. He conjures mystery in Sibelius' haunting sea music, where the sound rolls in waves.

        The nostalgic Valse triste is played with finesse by these Estonian artists.


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