I am travelling to an area known as the Lakelands. As the most water-rich country in the world, Finland has more than 188,000 lakes, as many islands, and 37 national parks. While the area is dear to Finns, Europeans, and Russians for cottage and spa getaways, most North Americans are in the dark about this Finnish hinterland. To shed some light on the subject, I will be journeying through this heartland of waterways to experience boating, nature, saunas, Finnish cuisine, and, surprisingly, a Mozart opera in a Medieval castle.
I arrive mid-morning after my hour flight from Helsinki to Savonlinna and am met by my friend Tanja. "We're off to Lomamokkila B&B for coffee," she says. Tanja explains that cottage stays are a booming business in Finland, and the Lakeland area has most. Lomamokkila is a rustic farmhouse oozing with charm that is close to the airport, close to the opera, yet in the middle of the lake region. Rated No. 1 on Trip Advisor, the owners speak English and ensure each person's stay is memorable.
After coffee and a delicious buffet breakfast, (my favourites were the oatmeal porridge and the small cheese croissants), we journey to Punkaharju, witnessing glacial scars and ridges left by retreating glaciers from the last ice age. This iconic ridge is one of Finland's national landscapes and is protected by a national reserve. Nearby and worth a stop is Lusto's Forest Museum, focusing on Finnish forest culture in the past, present, and future.
Savonlinna – home of the opera
Then it's off to Savonlinna, a popular spa town of about 37,000, built on a chain of islands in the heart of the lake district. This is also home to the world famous Savonlinna opera. "We have tickets," Tanja proclaims with a smile. First is a dinner cruise aboard the steam ship Paul Wahl, where we toast and dine on Finnish favorites like salmon, whitefish and arctic berries. Then, we arrive in time for a summer's evening at the opera.
The world famous Savonlinna opera festival is the largest opera venue in Finland. What makes it extra special is that the opera takes place in the medieval Olavinlinna castle. Built in 1475, it is known for its excellent acoustics.
The castle dates back to when Sweden and Russia strengthened their borders with castles and fortifications. In the Middle Ages, Sweden controlled most of present-day Finland until the Great Northern War of 1714-1721, when Sweden lost its position of power. By 1743, the castle became a Russian border fortification. From 1855 to 1861, the castle's military role ceased, and it served as a prison from 1855 to 1861. By the 1870's, the castle was beginning to be transformed into a historical monument.
The first opera was held in the castle in 1912 at the behest of Finnish soprano opera singer Aino Ackte. She was convinced that first-class opera in a romantic, medieval castle amidst breathtaking scenery would be an unforgettable experience. After a couple false starts due mainly to revolutions and world wars, opera made a full-fledged comeback when it became a yearly event in 1967.
Today, the Savonlinna Opera Festival is considered one of Finland's finest cultural endeavours, and one that appeals to opera lovers the world over. It has grown from a one-week event into a month-long festival, celebrating Finnish opera at its best. Over 60,000 opera fans attend the annual venue, and about 10 per cent come from abroad.
According to Mayor Janne Laine, "The Savonlinna Opera Festival was a product of the patriotic fervour that viewed Finnish culture as an integral part of the national identity. The Festival has withstood the passage of time and is still a platform for opera of the highest standard in one of Finland's most attractive tourist towns."
Tonight we see Mozart's The Magic Flute. This has been a flagship production since 1973, seen by at least two generations of opera fans. The opera is presented in two acts, with libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder drawing on various sources.
Surrounded by a surreal, almost gothic, and yet fairytale atmosphere, I am mesmerized by the setting and the plot. And though it is sung in Finnish, it is easy to follow thanks to English subtitles. Looking around, it is clearly a favourite of young and old alike.
Tamino is the hero and sets off with a magic flute to help him rescue Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, held prisoner by Sarastro. The Queen swears to seek revenge on Sarastro and challenges the sun with the brilliance of her song. But who is really on the side of goodness?
The production is stellar and I can hardly wait for next year, when two Italian classics grace the stage. Puccini's Tosca and Verdi's La Traviata will be presented with their numerous popular arias. I plan to be there.
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