Jungfrun i tornet (The Maiden in the Tower), one-act opera
Libretto by Rafael Herzberg. Completed in 1896; first performance in Helsinki, 7th November 1896 (Ida Flodin, "tenor" Engström, Emmy Achté, Abraham Ojanperä; the Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius).
Sibelius composed the opera The Maiden in the Tower for the benefit of a charitable lottery in the autumn of 1896. He collaborated with the librettist Rafael Herzberg. The opera is a one-act work which lasts only 35 minutes. Just a few years earlier Sibelius had been working in earnest on a full-scale opera called The Building of the Boat. Now at great speed he wrote a minor work which was to become his only opera. Emmy Achté revealed the atmosphere of the preparatory stages:
"Can you imagine that we haven't yet got the finale for Sibelius's opera, nor do I have the music for the small piece in which I am to perform, and now the lottery is only 2 weeks and 3 days away. The music is dramatically impressive and if we only had time it would certainly sound very fine. I am so terribly tired, because there have been days when I have been 8 hours [rehearsing] in addition to all the running around and the trouble. After all, I constantly have to go to Sibelius and give him a very necessary reminder that we can't guess what his music is; we need the notes on the page."
The first public performance was a moderate success, but the critic Oskar Merikanto had reservations. "It is natural that the first attempt is not always the best. And this is the case here," he commented. Merikanto correctly pointed out that the subject was not very grand or rewarding. In Merikanto's opinion the text was monotonous and gave rise to "too little action". Sibelius's long interludes interrupted the action on the stage.
However, Merikanto had good reason to praise the rich colours of the orchestration, even if he criticised the fact that the voice of the bailiff was drowned by the excessively heavy accompaniment. According to Merikanto, the performance itself was "pretty much a mess". However, Merikanto admitted that
"the ovations were quite enthusiastic" and that "the performers and also Mr Sibelius were called to take several bows".
The performance was repeated for the benefit of the composer, so he did not do his work merely for charitable purposes. Soon after the premiere, the Song Festival of the town of Mikkeli asked for the work with a view to a performance the following summer, but the composer refused this and other similar requests. He wanted to revise his work, but apparently the somewhat basic libretto did not inspire him. "The maiden has to stay in her tower," the composer is reported to have said to enthusiastic inquirers. Nevertheless, Sibelius conducted the overture of the opera in April 1900, at his concert in Turku.
The overture is one of the best parts of the opera. It develops joyfully and vividly in the fashion of the Karelia music, but towards the end we begin to hear the unprepossessing music of the bailiff.
The plot is simple. In the first scene, the bailiff sees a beautiful maiden picking flowers in a meadow. With his riches he tries to persuade the maiden to make love to him, but as this does not have any effect on her, he takes her by force. The music is feverish, but quite gentle in comparison to the violent seduction scene in Kullervo.
In the second scene the soprano has to show her capabilities. The full-blooded and sinuous music bears a resemblance to Sibelius's orchestral songs. The maiden is bemoaning her fate.
In the third scene a choir outside expresses its disappointment with the maiden, who has supposedly sold her honour and principles for the glitter of gold. In short interjections the maiden continues to bemoan her fate.
The fourth scene introduces a tenor, the lover who is longing for his lost girl.
The fifth scene begins with an ecstatic duet, as the lover sees the maiden imprisoned in the tower. After passionate explanations, the lovers swear to remain faithful to each other as the music takes on an erotic glow.
In the sixth scene the bailiff and the lover quarrel over the maiden and draw their swords.
In the seventh scene the lady of the castle interrupts the fight; after briefly apprising herself of the situation she arrests the bailiff.
In the eighth scene the liberated maiden and her lover rejoice and express their gratitude to the lady of the castle. The choir joins in the expressions of gratitude.
There is nothing wrong with Sibelius's music: the orchestration is skilful, the melodies are memorable and there is enough dramatic fire in the setting. The Maiden in the Tower returned to the repertoire in 1981 when Jussi Jalas conducted it for the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Since then there have been other concert performances and recordings, but directors have been reluctant to put the thinly-plotted piece on the stage.