I recently heard an opera called Kullervo by Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen. I had no idea about Sallinen until I heard Kullervo (although I know quite a few contemporary composers), but right now he is (to me) one of the most amazing composers around.
Kullervo is a story based on runes (chapters) 31 through 36 of the Kalevala. It starts out with a fascinating introduction (Untamoinen verkot laski kalervon kalavetehen, have no idea what it means, lol). The chorus is accompanied by low wind instruments that sound to me like tuba, baritone, sarussophone, and such…
Here is a scene that can give you an idea of the type of music Sallinen writes.
Sallinen combines the traditional belcanto style with fierce, dreadful-sounding atonal harmonies. He also has harmonies, that at times sound very pretty and sweet (with pedal points, progressions in cycles of fifths, etc.), followed immediately by a frightful-sounding atonal part. I think this combination is very effective. Other composers who use this kind of mixture of tonal and atonal portions thrown together are Luca Francesconi, John Musto, Hans Werner Henze, to name a few.
I have now read the plot of the opera, but before I did, I knew that the opera was very tragic. The use of tonal harmonies to precede atonal harmonies is a sign of tragedy, of intensity. In the entire opera, Sallinen has not one really joyful or cheerful aria or chorus part.
The performance I heard is by the Finnish National Opera Chorus and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ulf Soderblom. You can find it on www.naxosmusiclibrary.com if you have a subscription ($150 for a year, but definitely worth it!).
BTW, I first heard this opera when I was in the car. I didn’t know who the composer was, so I was pretty sure it was Arvo Pärt, lol.