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Lewes 2007, North Street Car Park, the former site of a naval prison. Early morning commuters converge under the ever-watchful eye of a town traffic warden.
Lewes 1854, Lewes Naval Prison, the future site of the North Street car park. Three hundred prisoners of war from the Finnish Grenadier Rifle Battalion are in residence.
In two years time, with the whole town of Lewes lining the streets to bid them farewell, they will return to Finland. The story of the kindnesses they received at the hands of the Lewes people will be immortalized in a Finnish national song.
Composer: Orlando Gough
Writer: Stephen Plaice
Directed by: Susannah Waters
Conductor: John Hancorn
Designer: Num Stibbe
Lighting: Clare O'Donoghue
Cast includes - Marcia Bellamy, Stephen Chaundy, Andrew Rupp, Joanna Songi and singers from the Finnish National Opera and Finnish Chamber Opera
Première: Phoenix Industrial Estate July 11th 2007
Anyone hearing that Lewes had hosted a co-production with the Finnish National and Finnish Chamber Operas might reasonably assume we were talking about Glyndebourne. So it was quite a coup that the Paddock - a small local production company - to have secured such major international input into what is in essence a 'community' opera.
The actual link came when Plaice visited Helsinki himself and discovered the story of the Finnish Prisoners' captivity in Lewes is remembered in one of Finland's best-known folk-songs, the Oolannin Sota (Song of the Aland War), while his Finnish hosts were equally thrilled to hear that this episode in their history was being made into an opera in Sussex. Hence the co-production, the most audible result of which was the participation of eight Finnish singers as the POWs themselves.
In an opera whose plot is all about the power of love and lust to reach out across the gulfs of language, race, time and space, their very presence and hair-raisingly deep-toned rendition of the Oolannin Sota added an extra frisson of ethnic authenticity and vocal authority to the resonances already reverberating from the fact that the opera was being staged in a disused warehouse just yards from the site of the former prison (now a car park) where their 19th century compatriots were incarcerated, and just a few yards further from the surviving memorial to 28 of their number who died in captivity.
But if the Finns' singing of the Oolanin Sota was an undoubted highpoint of the opera, it was only one among many.
Mark Pappenheim, Opera