HELSINKI — Finland’s booming world of contemporary opera took a bold step at the weekend by staging the life of Finnish athletics legend Paavo Nurmi at Olympic Stadium in Helsinki.

The open-air opera Paavo the Great. Great Race. Great Dream highlighted Helsinki’s stint as one of nine designated European cultural capitals this year. There are no plans for further performances after Friday’s premiere and a second show on Saturday.

But the unusual sport opera will get a potentially huge audience when European cultural television channel Arte airs it next month as a taped musical teaser for the Sydney Olympic Games.

Nurmi, the ‘Flying Finn’ and ‘King of Runners,’ won nine gold and three silver medals at three Olympic Games from 1920 to 1928 and set 25 world records in middle-and long-distance running in a career lasting over a decade. He died in 1973.

‘Nowadays many operas are made in Finland, but this kind of theme and hero have not been presented before,’ said poet Paavo Haavikko, who wrote the libretto.

The stadium opera, praised by critics but not a box-office sellout, was one of 15 new Finnish operas this year, including at least four of international significance.

It featured a cast of hundreds and baritone Gabriel Suovanen in the lead role as Nurmi.

The sports opera spectacle was fortunate to get the athletic Suovanen on loan from Stockholm. He ran the equivalent of a few laps without losing his breath during the one hour, 40 minute performance.

‘He takes everything out of the role — and a little more,’ said the critic for the daily Aamulehti. ‘On top of it all, he even runs like Nurmi, with a long and sweeping stride.’

Suovanen eclipsed the rest of the cast, but the critics also praised soprano Johanna Rusanen’s lucent voice as Nurmi’s wife and 30-year-old composer Tuomas Kantelinen’s neo-romantic music.

Mixing sport with opera hardly surprised a Finnish audience for whom Nurmi has always belonged in the national pantheon alongside the likes of composer Jean Sibelius and the great 20th-century architect Alvar Aalto.

The opera portrayed an athlete ahead of his time. Nurmi was a pioneer in rigorous, methodical training, running with a stopwatch in hand to check his pace.

Competition ban halted brilliant career

Nurmi’s tragedy was to have his career cut short by a international competition ban slapped on him before the 1932 Los Angeles Games because of accusations he had turned professional, running for money in Europe and the United States.

The ‘great dream’ of the opera’s title is Nurmi’s never-fulfilled ambition to win the marathon at the 1940 Helsinki Games, which were not held because World War II intervened.

Helsinki hosted the summer Games in 1952 at the stadium which was completed in 1938. But by then Nurmi’s competitive days were over and he had to settle for running the Olympic flame into the arena to the cheers of thousands.

In the opera, Nurmi’s dream is interrupted by the outbreak of war, with a low-flying army helicopter, armoured car and burning haystacks on the pitch creating the special effects.

Nurmi died a wealthy but reclusive, introverted and, some say, embittered man after making a fortune in real estate.

John Acher

Source: SOCOG