There are few places on Earth where one can listen to an open-air performance of the most famous works in the classical music canon in a medieval castle courtyard, but each summer the small town of Savonlinna in eastern Finland provides thousands of music lovers from Finland and farther afield with that opportunity.
This year, the Savonlinna Opera Festival features a new production of The Queen of Spades, along with some old favorites like Madame Butterfly, Turandot and Tosca. The story of how the festival began dates back more than a century.
It all started in 1907 when Finnish star soprano Aino Ackté made her first visit to the Olavinlinna Castle, built back in 1475 at a narrow strait in the Saimaa lake district by the Swedes to fend off Russian encroachment. She immediately recognised that the imposing stone edifice would be the perfect setting for opera performances.
Starting in 1912, she successfully arranged several years of productions showcasing domestic works, with Ackté herself singing the role of Marguerite in the festival’s first international production, Charles Gounod’s Faust.
After this, a series of domestic and international conflicts caused the festival to close down for more than 40 years.
In 1967, the Savonlinna Opera Festival made a long-awaited comeback with a showing of Beethoven’s Fidelio to a packed audience. Then-President of Finland Urho Kekkonen attended the televised performance.
Up to 15,000 foreign visitors each summer
Under the direction of the world-famous Finnish bass singer Martti Talvela, the festival soon grew from a one-week performance series into a month-long cultural event. Talvela threw himself into promotion of the event with the same zeal Ackté had shown, catapulting the festival to international acclaim and prestige. Opera lovers far and wide praised the castle’s picturesque setting and excellent acoustics, while the performances were recognised for their exceptional quality and professional execution.
Some 60,000 people travel to see a performance at the Savonlinna Opera Festival each year, and the most coveted productions are quickly sold out each season.
In recent years up to one-quarter of the ticket holders have hailed from outside of Finland’s borders. Because the castle is the northernmost stone fortress in Europe still standing, daylight continues well after the performances are done, allowing visitors to explore the Savonlinna town and shorelines from early in the morning until well past midnight.
Tchaikovsky’s favourite and Puccini’s home crew
This year, the Savonlinna Opera Festival will feature a new production of Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s classic opera, The Queen of Spades. Based on a short story by Pushkin, the opera tells the tragic story of an ill-fated gambler and his muse. The opera was the personal favourite of the Russian composer, and he considered the 1890 premiere in St Petersburg a resounding success. The 2018 performances mark the first time the opera will be shown in Savonlinna.
The programme for this summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival features repeat performances of the festival’s most popular productions from over the years: Gounod’s Faust, Verdi’s Otello and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.
Starting on July 30, the Italian opera company Puccini Festival Torre del Lago will finish out the last week with productions of Turandot and Tosca, composed by the company’s namesake.
In September, some of Savonlinna Opera Festival company will travel to Russia to perform this summer’s production of Otello at the illustrious Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
Heavy metal shakes the castle walls
This summer’s castle performance schedule includes two concerts from unlikely additions. On July 22, operatic arias will make way for Finnish extreme metal heavyweights Children of Bodom and the thrash metal group Lost Society.
Likewise, on July 15, the Finnish symphonic heavy metal band Apocalyptica will arrive at the castle to revisit its world-renowned set of Metallica songs on four cellos, an interpretation that propelled the group to fame over 20 years ago.