Surprisingly, mid her set-piece totemic Là ci darem la Mano aria, while being seduced by the slavering Don Giovanni, Zerlina was sawn in half, also locked up in a trunk by a gesticulating magician. Head mikes meant her lyrical vocal protestations continued uninterrupted. 

So much for dishing it out to the gander. Readers still high on New Year equality cocktails will be pleased to note the inappropriately-amorous Don’s goose was cooked, too. Into his own cabinet – ten feet away – he went. Knives Out sliders diced him up and before you could say, “Masetto’s, a cuckold!”, Don G was singing with Zerlina in – literally – six part harmony. Legs above head, apparently wearing Zerlina’s dress. 

By now she had sussed out his dastardly plans and was wearing the trousers. Poor Masetto, Zerlina’s hapless, peasant swain. 

I suppose you could say when, after a few tricksy openings of doors and deft slider manipulations, the pair ultimately emerged unscathed and in their original costumes, their duo was again an ensemble. They finished the seduction aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, conventionally, in great voice.

What’s going on? New Year hallucinations brought on by strong drink? Shame on you for the thought. Welcome to Helsinki’s brave attempt to reset opera for a next generation audience. CircOpera2.0 is aimed sharply at providing an updated opera experience for tech savvy iPhone clickers who might think opera’s not for them. #opera perhaps.

The concept is to reboot traditional offerings, emphasising dance, introducing enhanced sound production, slipping in the odd avatar or two, and adding circus elements to the presentation. 

When I heard of Finnish National Opera’s attempt to make opera “More amazing. More fierce. More magical,” I thought the idea so dreadful as to be unmissable. So, I ventured via a series of wildly improbable interconnecting flights into a Helsinki world of almost perpetual darkness, “on a full-blown adventure journey into a world where opera meets contemporary circus.” 

I remember as a wee boy being taken to motor shows where concept cars goggled the eyes, but were so outrageous – finned, aerodynamic monsters capable of zillions of MPH – they were never put into production. Like British Leyland’s improbable Austin Allegro, with it’s square steering wheel and inability to move about without breaking down ….. Hang on! Sorry. BL actually made that. I remember pushing a few round pubs in the West End of Glasgow back in the 70s.

For CirOpera2.0, think more Lamborghini Terzo Millennio 2017. This Jere Erkillä directed work, in co-operation with Opera Beyond, an annual conference held in Helsinki, was slick, compelling, and forces fud-dud traditionalists – me – to reassess the potential of combining volumetric video, spatial audio and new art forms to inject fresh life into an operatic medium finding it challenging to attract a next generation audience.

Does it work? Let the market be the judge. Helsinki has a population of 660,000. Finland, 5.5 million. Eight performances of CircOpera2.0 over December and January were sell-outs. 1,305 seats. That’s 10,000 reindeer-hustling Finns making their way to the capital in pitch black and Arctic conditions, over 8 weeks. 

The Scandi Opera is attracting audiences as as proportion of the population roughly similar to those of much longer established Scottish Opera. As to occupancy levels, currently, New York’s Metropolitan Opera is averaging 60% seat occupancy. Unsustainable, long term. No-one can afford to ignore the novel Helsinki audience gathering stratagem.

But, is this serious opera? My jury is out. Some presentations worked. Some did not. To start with, it wasn’t all opera. The programme was spattered with occasional visual renderings of orchestral works. Kick-off was Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, made famous in 1960s moon landing programmes and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2002, A Space Odyssey. 

The opera’s selected were far from reliable, well-known favourites. This wasn’t playing to a populist gallery. Rameau’s Rondeau, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman were presented alongside Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Delibe’s Lakmé. In all, there were twenty three presentations. 

So, what did the circus add, apart from a cutting edge view of Don Giovanni? Firstly, movement. Sanna Silvennoinen, of Circo Aereo, a Finnish based circus company with global reach and a – literally – sky-high reputation, accomplished wonders with trapeze and high wire acts, occasionally involving the singers in vertiginous stunts that made the mind boggle. Hanging by your hair does wonders for your falsetto. Theatricality was always central, yet nothing was done for pure show. There was an insistence on dramatic purpose.

Some sequences, such as the Lakmé, involved dancers rather than circus acts. Choreographer, Reina Wäre, had a keen sense of atmosphere. The beginning of the world mayhem of Also sprach Zarathustra was truly savage. The Madama Butterfly presentation beautifully moving. Why? Because the dancers enveloped the singers, heightening the expressed emotions and adding another element to voice and music.

And that, after all, is why opera started – in 1598. Combining all known art forms – the human voice, orchestral music and set piece ballet, Jacobo Peri’s Dafne – mostly lost – set the scene for cinematic performances, brought more famously to fruition by Monteverdi, Rameau and taken on generation after generation, always using whatever exciting new technology was being invented. 

Hence thunder machines, flying angels, sets that were too complicated to work in Wagner’s Bayreuth, and spectacular lighting. What started out as candlelight, morphed into limelight, and is now a “not for epileptics” flashing strobe-fest. 

Always, always, always, opera has been the performing artist’s platform for engaging all the senses, shamelessly exploiting technological innovation. Helsinki Opera is simply today’s boldest innovator. 

In 2019, when I attended Metropolitan Opera’s full Ring Cycle, the one with the spectacular piano key undulating set that cost the Met $35m and is now lying, crippled, in a Canadian warehouse, I felt I was witnessing the last thrash of a dinosaur’s tail. The era of pursuing spectacle, funded from a bottomless dollar-pit, was drawing to a close. CircOpera2.0 is the response.

Helsinki is a great place to experience opera. Built in 2003 the house has something that few opera houses worldwide cater for. Acoustics which are excellent apart, it is designed to be audience friendly. No queuing for toilet facilities. Ample and everywhere. No queuing for the cloakroom either. In the entrance foyer there are about a dozen alphabetically designated arches, each with it’s own attendant. Getting rid of and picking up that essential 100 lb. reindeer hide greatcoat has never been easier. 

Why has no-one else thought of this? No lines for refreshments. Plenty of service points allowing intervals to be enjoyed rather than spent in fidgety frustration.

As importantly, the programme this season beyond CircOpera2.0 is ambitious. Four main stage productions. Wagner’s Siegfried, Puccini’s Turandot, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. All look visually stunning productions, but not a circus performer in sight!

So, is CircOpera2.0 an Obama-type Russian reset button, likely to achieve little? Or is it a John the Baptist moment for opera company’s facing various “Come to Jesus” funding challenges.

Some of the circus turns were exciting, but added little to the artistic experience. An enormous cantilevered boom with acrobats running mind-bogglingly across the crazy swinging mechanism and performing somersaults did not enhance the romance of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. 

That said, the audience clearly loved the experience. One lady I spoke to at the interval told me it was her third visit. As a  proscenium-high avatar beckoned me in at the opening, I had an instinctive feeling this was to be an encounter with the future. Helsinki’s take on the circus-opera blend might have teetered into occasional overkill, but it all made for a compelling audience experience. 

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