Rautavaara Kaivos, 'The Mine'
Completed in 1962 but composed largely between 1957 and 1960, The Mine is Rautavaara’s own story of miners striking against and eventually being crushed by a dictatorial party, the latter represented onstage by the highly ambivalent figure of a Commissar, who is hated by the workers he sincerely professes to love. Several of the central characters face dire existential choices (the composer was heavily into Sartre at the time), which makes for some productive tensions and intriguing intellectual perspectives, but not necessarily for great opera, and it is hard to imagine many listeners going along with the composer’s assessment of his work as “a real thriller”. What does give the story edge is its obvious and acknowledged allegory for the 1956 Hungarian uprising. This and the general context of Soviet Finlandisation made staging too hazardous to contemplate at the time. The Mine was first produced for television in 1963 and has still not been seen in the opera house; this new recording was taken from concert performances in Tampere last September.
Just as events in Hungary engendered the story, so Rautavaara’s encounter with Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron at its Zürich world premiere in 1957 inspired the musical language in which to tell it. The resistance of the musical material to operatic norms parallels the resistance of the miners to their oppressors, as well as safeguarding against any hint of chocolate-box pathos. Episodes in quasi-tonal jazzy style occasionally evoke the world outside, but Rautavaara goes nowhere near as far as Berg in this respect and the chorus’s Schoenbergian speech-song declamation is a serious blot on the aesthetic landscape. Overall, the consistency of musical language is highly impressive yet may, paradoxically, prove one reason why the
most The Mine can ever hope to command is respect.
Any cast willing to take on this dauntingly unglamorous music, and able to do so with such authority, commands rather more than respect. There is certainly some strain in the singing but also a compelling quota of dramatic truth and passion. Hannu Lintu’s belief in the work shines through and he brings the Tampere Philharmonic with him undaunted, as the three 25-minute acts take us from the outside world to the edge of the mine and finally to its claustrophobic interior.
This first of Rautavaara’s operas may or may not be, in his own words, “perhaps the best opera I have ever written”; I for one take more away from his single-personality-centred dramas – Vincent, Thomas and Aleksis Kivi (though not from his Rasputin). Still, The Mine is certainly serious and stirring stuff. This recording fills a major gapin the Rautavaara discography and fills it with distinction.