Sunday, July 12, 2009

Opera, anyone?

I grew up fairly uncultured. The performances of ladies singing arias on the Ed Sullivan Show were occasions of hilarity for us kids fresh in from a backyard football game. Sensitive, aesthetic tears never dampened our grimy cheeks. Even as I grew into a deep appreciation for Beethoven and Schubert, among others, opera just never appealed to me.

Well two years ago, I read a CD review of an opera by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928 - ). It's titled The House of the Sun, and something in that review attracted me. That peculiar attraction had echoes in it: Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, Shostakovich…Keats, De Quincey, Poe, Emily Dickinson, Bruno Schulz…some others. The kindredness I perceive among all these is characterized best with the word "melancholy."

Most people flee downpours of melancholy. Those folks above – and me – didn't make it under the defensive awnings. We're drenched. Having heard Rautavaara's The House of the Sun, I'd say he ain't too dry himself.

The CD booklet introduction, written by the composer, is titled "The House of the Sun and the mystery of time." Based on actual events, this opera is about a pair of Russian sisters, who lived in the same house in Finland from 1917 to 1987. The Russian Revolution had displaced the family, and after their father's, brother's, and sister's suicides, as well as their mother's natural death, the twin sisters secluded themselves in SolgÄrten (House of the Sun). Sustained by mutual childhood memories more real than the impossible reality of their situation, they luxuriate in wafts of Russian melancholy penetrating the house's walls...hanging, then forming into subtle visions for that wounded pair.

The libretto recounts attempts at more grounded visitation by hopeful suitors and others. All to no avail. The sisters could not be released from the magnetic grip of a utopian past, either through an act of their own wills or by the influence of outsiders. I found the performances riveting and the music beautifully sad.

The denouement especially haunts me and will be with me for the rest of my life. The ghosts of two old suitors appear and, together, prepare the sisters for their approaching apotheosis:

"When it is time, when the time comes,
Understand this: in your most important moment
A bird stops and looks at you, at the moment when you understand
The pond reflects the entire world,
And the brook says: now it is time, here, now and always
A red leaf floats on the stream,
Carried by the water into oblivion."

At the very end, reality is thoroughly overtaken by dream and fantasy…by the promptings of familiar ghosts, who lead the twins, finally, outside the House of the Sun:

One after another, they dance
through the open garden door into the moonlight.

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