in Reviews

Ambiguous opera watered down in recording

by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

Mari Sainio's tonal language is anchored in postminimalism and the glamour of Broadway musicals.

Working in film music, electronic minimalism and different types of chamber ensembles, composer Mari Sainio created her monologue opera The Raven in close collaboration with bass-baritone Sam Taskinen and choreographer Oskari Nyyssölä some six years ago. Premiering in 2017, the work has been performed multiple times and has now been released as an album.


Based on the famous poem by Edgar Allan PoeThe Raven is centred around physical theatre. A large white scarf in Taskinen’s hands transforms in turn into a dead baby, a wing of an angel or a demon, a straitjacket, and so on. Has the narrator killed his beloved Lenore? Is he himself Lenore? Will the work conclude with the narrator hanging himself?  


All these levels are absent when experiencing audio only, and the 18 movements, named as “acts”, now resemble a song cycle of sorts. This is not problematic per se, but without the staged elements, Sainio’s music alone is not able to sustain the dramatic arc.  


The instrumental ensemble (Tuomas Salokangas, Maiju Lehti, Laura Clewer, Aino RautakorpiSusanna Syrjäläinen) sets a predominantly dark tone. Sainio uses particularly effective combinations of bassoon, different keyboards and accordion to create a stylised gothic horror feel. Her tonal language is anchored in postminimalism and the glamour of Broadway musicals. The Raven reminds me of another opera set to Poe’s texts, The Fall of the House of Usher by Philip Glass. Sainio’s minimalistic methods, however, fail to build a similarly effective sense of growing threat. 


The Raven’s long, sustained melodic lines have been tailored to Sam Taskinen’s glorious voice, which resonates with a warm brass-like ringing and an unforced dramatic flair. Since the premiere of this monologue opera, Taskinen’s career has taken off in Germany’s opera houses. Furthermore, she has undergone a major life change, gender reassignment. Today, Taskinen is one of few transgender singers in the opera scene. 


The album’s listener is in for a long wait before anything really starts to happen. On her solo albums, Sainio uses electronics to build layers and to gradually raise the intensity, creating a full-bodied experience. In The Raven, however, electronic techniques remain in a reduced role, and the expressiveness seems pale. The sedate musical narration and the monotonously steady pulse in the songs seem to be designed to provide a platform for the ambiguous turns of events on the stage, and for Taskinen’s strong stage presence.


For today’s listener, the raven’s incessant crowing (“Nevermore!”) is readily associated with depression. At the very end of the work, the repeated instrumental unison passages begin to drill down deep into the consciousness, and the struggle with one’s inner raven comes to an intensive end. 


Mari Sainio / Sam Taskinen – The Raven

Pilfink Records, 2022



Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham