Erkki Melartin was a first-rate composer and surely the most significant Finnish composer of the generation immediately following Sibelius. His wonderful symphonies are currently available in very sympathetic performances on Ondine and this release containing his opera Aino is extremely welcome. Melartin's late-romantic tonal language resembles the music of his Swedish contemporaries (such as Alfvén, Stenhammar and Peterson-Berger) more than it resembles Sibelius; there are certainly traces of the slightly older Finnish master as well, but the connection may be due more to a common anchoring in Finnish folk music and folklore than a direct influence.
Aino, based on a plot from the Kalevala and set to a libretto by Jalmari Finne, is dramatically rather static, concerning itself more with the moods, emotions and impressions of the story. Overall, Aino comes across as a deeply impressive, moving and atmospheric, dreamlike meditation (the more straightforwardly dramatic parts are generally allocated to the first act). And it is certainly stirring; there are scenes of breathtaking beauty, luminosity, enchanting evocations and veiled ecstasy (for lack of a better description - I am thinking in particular about the final chorus of water nymphs, which creates a radiant, amazing aural haze). It is overall a singable, even tuneful work, finely scored with wonderfully shaped and paced vocal lines, and deeply, luminously atmospheric, in particular the rapturously gorgeous vocalise at the start of the second disc and the men's hymn to nature in scene 7.
The performances are excellent throughout. The title role is taken by Ritva-Liisa Korhonen who performs it with all the mysterious, radiant beauty one could hope for. The male roles are consistently warm and in fact rather gently sung (though not monotonously so) and the other female roles both variegated and beautiful. The recording is very well balanced - the voices are prominent but not obtrusively so and the sound is clear and spacious (the recording is live but there are few extraneous noises). The notes are extensive and very good, providing among other things the various "leitmotifs" employed in the work, although the libretto is only given in Finnish. Still, this is a wonderful experience - just don't expect any verismo-style drama - and something of an essential release for anyone who cares about late-romantic, post-Sibelian music.