The Red Line is based on an early twentieth-century novel which is now regarded in Finland as something of a classic. The setting is the north Finnish backwoods province of Kainuu. It is an area of great natural beauty with endless forests of tall pine, lakes, steep hills and great marshes. It is also a harsh country with long, dark and bitterly cold winters; man has to struggle hard to wrest a living out of the unyielding soil and hostile nature.
The author of the book, Ilmari Kianto (1874–1970) was a north-country man himself. He was one of the most remarkable and prolific Finnish writers of his generation; he produced a seemingly endless stream of poems, reflections, memoirs and novels, many of them aurobiographical. Kianto was long regarded as a puzzling and even controversial figure. He was a clergyman’s son turned anticlerical; a well-educated intellectual who sought tranquillity in closeness to nature. As a young man he was a rebel whose behaviour often shocked his contemporaries; in old age he was a respected patriarchal figure. He was a philosopher and, at the same time, an impulsive and sometimes impish eccentric.
Kianto was deeply attached to the nature and people of his native Kainuu, and this love emerges clearly and strongly in the novels which he set in his own province. The Red Line, published in 1909, is one of these. It is among his masterpieces.
Kianto examines his characters and the nature surrounding — and dominating — them in fond, romantic and sometimes meandering detail. He draws an affectionate sketch of the local folk, and especially the two central characters. The crofter, Topi, is a slow-thinking, slow-moving inarticulate man stunted by too much toil and privation. His wife Riika once had pretensions, having worked on a large farm in her youth and having seen real gentlefolk. She still feels slightly superior to her husband; but boths are old before their time, embittered and worn out by their hard existence. In contrast, there is a slightly acid portrait of a country vicar, the representative of an official and officious Church. There is an equally ironic sketch of a political agitator with his demagoguery and slogans.
In one sense The Red Line is a study of man’s struggle for survival in an inhospitable nature, and the effect of that struggle; but there is another theme. Kianto also examines the impact of the politics of a far distant outside world upon the lives of simple backwoods people at a time of great social and political upheavels. The period in whoch the novel is set — the early years of this century — was a time when people in outlying districts could still face real starvation. They were oppressed, not only by the enmity of nature, but also by the indifference of an uncaring and arrogant gentry.
At that time an event of great importance took place: the first election in Finland under universal suffrage for a unicameral Parliament in 1907. It was the first time anywhere in Europe that women had the vote. It was a milestone on Finland’s road to independence, although that goal was not to be reached until more than a decade later, after bitter external and internecine struggles.
There are other important background elements in Kianto’s novel. Right at the beginning a bear makes an ominous appearance, threatening the family’s meagre livestock and therefore their entire livelihood. The bear symbolises the hostility of nature, but it can also be interpreted as the symbol of other, more distant menaces. One is increasing political dissension and strife, as exemplified by the Agitator during the election. Another is Russia.
During the events the novel describes, Finland was still a self-governing Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire; but at about the turn of the century, the Tsar’s government had begun a policy of Russification in Finland, in order to bring this ethnically and constitutionally ‘anomalous’ province into line with the rest of the Empire. This policy was bitterly resented by many Finns. They felt threatened; they saw Russia as both hostile and unpredictable.
This Russia is represented by a visiting Karelian pedlar, on his way back east after trading journey. He brings the family a glimpse of another and different world. He tells marvellous tales and sings strange ballads. But he is more than merely a touch of the exotic. He personifies Russia — a familiar yet alien, fascinating yet ominous near neighbour beyond the great cultural watershed separating a western and Protestant Finland from an eastern and Orthodox Russia.
In writing the libretto for this opera, the composer has considerably condensed and tightened the action. The underlying conflicts — between man and nature, between man and his own closest society as well as with the larger society outside, and finally conflicts within that outside society — are emphasised and their dramatic content highlighted.
The election is the focal theme of the drama. It will — the poor people believe — enable them to get rid of the gentry and to gain a fairer future. All they need to do is to draw a line — a red line — on a piece of paper, and the world will be different; there will be no more starvation and toil.
In the event it seems that the hopes of a new dawn are not to be fulfilled. The family’s children become ill and die; nature seems to win in the end. Help comes too late to save the children. The bear awakens after his hibernation and attack’s the family’s only cow. The man goes out to slay the intruder, but the bear kills him — leaving his life-blood coursing out of his throat, in a red line.
© Erkki Arni, 1978
(Finnish National Opera)
See Synopsis in English Instrumentation
3232 4331 12 1, cel, speaker, str, 13voc solo, chx, actors Category
Works for the Stage Language
Fi Opus no.
Sallinen Aulis (san.)Binham Philip (käänt.)Oliver Stephen (käänt.)Krüger Heidi (käänt.) Premiere
Finnish National Opera, cond. Okko Kamu, Helsinki, November 30, 1978. Commisioned by / dedications
Commissioned by the Finnish National Opera.
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