Most people don't seek out modern opera looking for something comfortable and conventional. By "modern" I mean operas written in 'our' adult lifetimes, not Berg or Britten. Aulis Sallinen's "The Palace" was composed for and premiered at the Savonlinna Festival in Finland in 1995. The libretto is in Finnish, the native language of most of the singers. I can't vouch for accurate translation in the subtitles, but in any case, the language is quirky and at times quite striking. As a piece of theatre, "The Palace" is halfway between "Waiting for Godot" and "Gone With the Wind" -- a surreal satire of 'dictatorship by protocol' (in a realm that could as easily be Ceaucescu's Romania as Selassie's Ethiopia) which slyly metamorphoses into a passionate seduction/escape scene between the Queen and the nefarious schemer Valmonte, a 'minister' with an undefined portfolio of treason. Viewers whose enthusiasm for modern opera is limited might well try to ignore that "The Palace" is an opera at all, and watch this DVD as a piece of Theatre of the Absurd, a kind of Ubu Roi with a prominent sound track.
Ironically, the music of Aulis Sallinen IS relatively comfortable and conventional, not at all difficult to appreciate if you have already learned to enjoy such early 20th C composers as Janacek or Prokofiev. The orchestration is broad and colorful, powerful without being especially memorable. The most interesting music qua music comes in the duets of the second half, between the Queen and her seducer, and the Queen and the wife of Ossip, the doggedly loyal Minister. Their musical intensity comes as a potent surprise after the comedic vocal antics of the first half.
Much of the satire, musical and theatrical, is performed by tenor Jorma Silvasti in the role of Petruccio, a cynical opportunist "in the know" in the court of King Bassa, who rules by remaining inscrutable. One advantage to experiencing a contemporary opera is that one can be certain that the production is NOT revisionist. If this were a director's 'update' of Handel or Mozart, one might yowl at the campiness of Silvasti's performance, but in this surreal context, he's perfect, a feline presence mocking the clumsy servility of Ossip and the other court functionaries. The role of Ossip, by the way, is sung richly by basso Tom Krause; Ossip is in effect the 'straight man' of this comedy as well as the victim of his wife's burlesque contempt. Wife Kitty, sung by Ritva-Liisa Korhonen, is a sort of 'unsatisfied' Mae West with the voice of Joan Sutherland. The dominant presence on stage for most of the opera, however, is Valmonte, sung and acted excellently by Sauli Tilikainen. Valmonte is half villain, half resistance hero, and Tilikainen delivers both images convincingly.
I'm not ready to declare that "The Palace" is a major masterpiece of modern opera. Its 'raison d'etre', the music, is accessible and colorful but short of being profound. But it's a welcome, very welcome relief from biennial Madama Butterflies and Aidas. It's one of at least a score of modern scores that I'd be eager to buy orchestra seats to see/hear at my 'neighborhood opera house'.