Olavinlinna Castle perched atop its ancient Rapakivi granite rock seems to have been raised from the black-icy Kyrönsalmi Strait in a mythical time. Walk across the pontoon bridge from Savonlinna, admiring the massive, roofed turrets that catch the eye but: “Operagoer, look down!”

The granite island seems magically blended with the castle walls. It is difficult to see where the slanting rock supporting this medieval fortress and the mortar and stone foundations of 1475 merge. The builders were slick craftsmen. They built the edifice to support the Swedish crown from Russian attack. Now Olavinlinna will stand guard again, close to the eastern boundary of NATO’s latest member.

This is Valhalla, Elsinore, Lammermoor, rolled into one. The unmodernised, massive polished cobbled alleyways and courtyards cause audiences to stagger and grab handrails. No pernickety ‘elf and safety in Finland!

Wheelchairs lurched dangerously. The loo was down a dank, steep ill-lit passage, where the Prisoner of Zenda could well have attended to his ablutions. The venue reeked of mystery and romance. 

An auditorium has been created in the central courtyard, open to the skies for most of the year, but for July and early August covered by an artful tarpaulin just in case it rains in the land of the midnight sun.

Rain? It pissed down, lightning dancing across the lake, a drumbeat of sound almost drowning out the orchestra and singers. But nary a drop of deluge inflicted itself on a watcher’s cranium. Although it did make negotiating slippery battlements with an interval drink a theatrical performance on its own. No one fell into the lake. 

Onstage, the magic continued. Unlike the production of Giulio Cesare which was, frankly, a farce, the festival presented two complementary polished gems – Arlecchino, Ferruccio Busoni, and Gianni Schicchi, Giacomo Puccini.

Marin Blažević, who did so thoroughly for Cesare, directed Arlecchino and I wasn’t holding my breath. Wrong. This comic, surreal opera, written by Busoni in 1916, just as the surrealist movement was gathering steam and Dadaism stirring, fostered anarchic themes which were to blossom eventually into the idiom of the full-moustachioed Salvador Dali. Blažević’s over-the-top treatment suited the one act work beautifully.

Scene I

The plot is set in Bergamo. Period is immaterial. Ser Matteo del Sarto is a tailor whose wife, Annunziata is Arlecchino’s “bit of stuff”. Mistress would be an overstatement. To secure unfettered access to his lover, Arlecchino convinces Ser Matteo — who is besotted with Dante and pays no attention to his wife — that the city is under attack by barbarians.

Ser Matteo rushes off with a priest and doctor to tell the mayor, but they are distracted by an inn. Arlecchino, disguised as a soldier, persuades Ser Matteo to volunteer to defend the city and grants him the concession of taking his beloved Dante to the front with him.

There was constant movement and complex dance routines to keep the action piping hot.

Scene II

Arlecchino is being given the rolling pin treatment by his wife, Colombina, outraged by his infidelities. She is being wooed by a local worthy, Leandro. Arlecchino discovers Leandro and — in the best Glasgow Saracen’s Head tradition — flattens him with a “stoater”. 

Colombina flees to the inn where she meets up with a priest and the local doctor. They find Leandro in a ditch, take him for treatment and after dialogue with Arlecchino, the air is cleared. He can carry on with Annunziata. When Ser Matteo returns, realising he has been hoodwinked, he finds his house empty.

At first sight, the plot seems inconsequential. It is opera buffa with slapstick and Blažević proved a master of the genre, helped by the providence that Croatian baritone, Giulio Settimo, turned out to have acrobatic as well as singing and acting talents in spades.

He performed every outlandish jest requiring physical jerks on the threshold of pain to perfection and his interaction with Annunziata, Italian soprano Serenata Ferraiuolo, and Colombina, Emilia Rukavina — a pert mezzo soprano with a blousy voice — was chaotic and hilarious. 

The purpose of the piece, apparently, is to demonstrate that every performance in the theatre, opera included, is a paradox. Singing is shattered by the spoken word. The wrong leads to the right, and vice versa. Chance emerges from intention — “best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley” — and tragedy emerges from comedy. This is an early 20th century commentary piece about the opera medium. I smell wokery.

It was also crafted as a lead-in to Gianni Schicchi, the other half of the double bill, a short and pithy one act comedy by Giacomo Puccini and his librettist, Gioachino Forzana, a playwright who fostered the composer’s glancing relationship with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. 

The action in Arlecchino focused on reversed scenery, which was gradually assembled into the completed staging for Gianni Schicchi. A neat trick, literally setting the scene for Puccini’s “short”.

We are in 1299. The time is important, for Gianni Schicchi de Cavalcanti was a real person who figured in the 30th canto of Dante’s La Divina Commedia. Geddit? That is why Arlecchino, with its Dante-loving dupe, makes for a perfect double bill foil.

The rich Buoso Donati has died. Hypocritical mourning relatives with an eye on a juicy inheritance lurk. When a will is found, the estate, including a precious and much-referenced mule, has been left to monks.

Outrage. A scheme is hatched to ask the streetwise (hood) Gianni Schicchi for advice. He is the father of Lauretta, in love with Rinuccio, the only family member with anything approaching a brain.

Schicchi cottons on to the fact that no one knows the old man is dead, orders the corpse hauled from the bed, replaces him and calls for a notary to take his dictation of a new will. Meantime, he reminds the whole family that conspiring in the writing of a fraudulent will have their hand chopped off.

The family assumes the will shall be in their favour and Schicchi will be content with a commission. Of course, when the wise guy dictates the will to the notary, he leaves everything to his friend “Gianni Schicchi” — himself. The family’s rage is quelled by constant reminders that “in Florence, hands are chopped off”. They have inherited their mess of pottage and must lump it. Their greed has been double-crossed.

This opera works only if the balance between suppressed outrage of the duped family and the shockingly brazen action of Schicchi is maintained on a knife edge of farce. Done to perfection. 

Puccini wrote of the opera as a battle between the middle ages — the Donati family — and the Renaissance — the Schicchi crowd. If he meant it, Puccini can’t have thought much of the Renaissance, as he was driving towards enlightenment in the hands of opportunistic criminals! 

I think it’s a very funny opera about greedy people being susceptible to rip-off schemes. Which reminds me. I must respond pronto to Jonathan Iheanyichukwu Abraham, Emmanuel Samuel and Jerry [Chucks] Ozor, who have kindly sought me out in connection with an inheritance from my forgotten relative who has passed in Nigeria — Malone of the Niger. Maybe they haven’t been extradited yet. Now, where are those bank details..?

Puccini’s real point is that in the amoral human story there is nothing new under the sun. Unusually, no one died of tuberculosis. Indeed, Buoso didn’t sing at all. Just died. Talk about corpsing onstage. He did, surprisingly, revive to take a curtain call.

The relatively shallow stage of Olavinlinna, if anything, helped the action. There is no backstage at all, for the simple reason that the stage is built in front of a rugged battlement wall. Entrances and exits are from existing doors and stairs, stage right and left or from below. 

The benefit is that all the action is full frontal and not a single comedic gesture could be missed. The acoustics are sharp and the tarpaulin roof deals with the risk of resonance from the stone walls. Seats are newly installed and appallingly uncomfortable, but — I have it on the authority of my neighbour in the audience — a “damned sight better than the previous ones”.

This double bill was a bold step that worked. Next summer Savonlinna offers Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Bock and Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof, Tarkiainen’s A Room of One’s Own, and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. 

Outi Tarkiainen is a Finnish composer. She works mostly in Berlin, writing orchestral music, but claims her first opera, which has already premiered in Helsinki, is rooted in her homeland. Worth another journey in the summer of 2023 to a 110-year-old Savonlinna Opera Festival that constantly delivers surprises. 

Not least, that the boring pre-performance ya-di-ya announcement about mobile phones is delivered in four languages, Finnish, Swedish, English — and Russian. A sharp reminder of the convoluted history of this new NATO member, so often tossed on the seas of history. With the Russian border a mere 71km to the east, perhaps the promoters are being prudent.