Based on the 1911 novel The Red Line by Ilmari Kianto, the opera – like the novel – is set in 1907, a watershed year in Finnish history during which elections were held, leading eventually to Finnish independence in 1917. Topi, a poor crofter, lives with his wife Riika and children in the bleak north Finnish backwoods. They are beset by a marauding bear and oppressed by an indifferent society. Promise of a new life appears. An agitator whips up support for social democracy by telling people that if they draw a red line on a ballot paper, they will be free from oppressed misery. But it does not happen: the children die of malnutrition; the bear returns. Topi gets killed by the bear, his throat slit in a red line..
Topi, a crofter, has discovered the presence of a bear in the vicinity of his small homestead; the bear has taken a precious sheep. Topi blusters and swears that he is going to kill the beast, but his wife Riika scorns his boasts. After all, he has not even managed to catch smaller game in the forest; how could he hope to get a bear?
Riika laments their miserable, poverty-stricken existence. She remembers her youth: how she used to work on large, rich farms with gentle folk who had nice manners and speech. Now she is reduced to this squalor. Topi is annoyed at his wife's remarks and complains that she repeats the same tale every year, and every time she embroiders it to make her lost paradise sound even better. Does Riika know what his paradise was when he was a boy? It was the logging-camp, where the toil was backbreaking, but where he could taste real bread for the first time in his life. Until he was sixteen, he had only even eaten bread made from pine bark. That was his paradise!
They argue. Riika laments their eternal poverty; their children have to go barefoot even in mid-winter, because there simply are no boots for them. When Topi tries to comfort her, promising that things will one day turn better, she commands him to fetch some flour for their evening porridge. Topi goes, only to return horrified, for there is no grain left.
Topi collapses and dreams he has gone to ask the priest for poor-aid. The Vicar coldly reproves Topi for not coming to church often enough; it is only through prayer that people find help. Topi explains that they live far away in the forest, his children have been sick, and it has been too cold to trek to the village. The Church warms people's soul, the Vicar replies, and then demands to know what is in the sledge Topi is pulling.
It's a coffin, with three dead children in it, Topi says miserably; they died because the poor-help did not come in time. Why - the Vicar insists - did Topi not come to church soon enough? He should not have been so idle. Then the Vicar consents to bury the children for a reduced fee, since all are in a single coffin.
Topi wakes up, terrified. He recovers himself, then tells Riika that he is off to the village to sell some birds that he had caught and hidden away. At least that will buy him some grain.
After he has gone, Riika regrets that she had insulted Topi; he does try his best to keep his family going. But why does he cry out and babble in his sleep so often? Why does he keep calling the Vicar? Is he perhaps ill… and what if he were to die… what would happen to them all?
She reproves herself for sinfully thinking her husband dead. She watches him going, skiing into the distance. He can no longer see Riika, just the cabin with its single window, like some one-eyed god staring into the wilderness.
Simana Arhippaini, a wandering pedlar turns up with his men on his way back east to Karelia from a trading voyage. He asks for shelter for the night, and settles down to talk with the children. They ask him endless questions: do they smoke in Heaven, or why are there clouds in the sky? Does God have a beard? Arhippiani doesn't know about God, but says the Emperor certainly has a beard, and the Emperor is our gracious father, our sun. But the Emperor is beset by many problems. People in the Russian Empire are becoming discontented; they go on strike, they are rebellious.
The children go on asking questions; and finally Arhippiani himself starts setting riddles to them. He sings a ballad with a string of questions and answers: "What is fleeter than a bird? What is blacker than a raven? What are whiter then swans? And what cries louder than cranes?"
"A thought is fleeter than a bird; a sin is blacker than a raven. The angels are whiter than swans; it's thunder that cries louder than cranes".
The ballad has more riddles like that. What is rounder than round? - The sun. Where are the brightest candles? - In a starlit sky.
Riika feels envious of someone who can sing so cheerfully. She and her family have nothing much to sing about - they have nothing, yet soon it will be Christmas.
At this point Topi returns home. He brings some coffee; but Riika notices something odd in him. Finally he manages to say that he has been to a meeting, and soon there will be a new order - solical rocracy or something. He explains that there were speeches, but it wasn't a preyer-meeting. On the contrary, there was a new kind of book, a red book.
Topi relates that as he approached the church - that fortress of Imperial and Godly order - he saw that a meeting was going on at a house near by, and there Kunilla the Cobbler's wife was reading a tract…
(Kunilla reads)…"The poor folk of this country have always been downtrodden, but no there will be an end to this diabolical system. For next March all the poor of this country will be electing representatives to Parliament, who will take up the cause of the poor classes against their oppressors. Now everyone will know what it means when the poor classes of this country draw a red line…"
"A red line", Riika wonders, "from the people's own blood". It sounds fine, but it may be sinful. Topi agrees that such a sermon may not have been heard before, when the Cobbler said that (The Cobbler) "…on the fifteenth of March everyone, every crofter and his wife will come to draw this red line which will set the upper classes by the ears. And the poor croft" (his wife adds) "the more reason for them all to come, men and women. And all must come to a meeting" (The Cobbler goes on) "where there will be a real Ragitator or Agitator or something, to tell them how things in this country should be ordered".
And here is the Agitator, Puntarpää, whipping up support for socialism. Now it is the turn of poor downtrodden people to turn against their oppressors, he declares; it is no longer the time to appeal, but to demand. The people demand human dignity; if it is not given to them voluntarily, they will take it by force.
Who - the Agitator demands - who is it that tills the soil; who is it that draws the nets from the freezing river? Who is it that toils to pull up tree-roots to clear a forest, or hauls heavy tar-barrels about? Who is it that washes the fine ladies' linen and rinses it in a hole cut in the ice of a frozen lake? It is the poor who have to do all this, the Agitator shouts and then asks, is this some sort of immutable law decreed by God, that those who are poor should also be abject? What is the blessing in that? All you get as a reward is a grave in the churchyard, and a wooden cross or stone if you're really lucky. The priests in the church tell lies when they say that the poor must be humble. That's not our religion; we will find our own god.
A young priest interupts to say that it is good that someone takes up the cause of the poor, but that it is wrong to let fanaticism destroy reason. What is going to happen if we are all spurred into anger and hatred? Hatred leads into more hatred, revenge demands more revenge, endlessly. Amid shouts of protest, the young priest appeals to the meeting: which is better, hatred or love, revenge or forgiveness? If hatred gets the upper hand, there will be more suffering, even bloodshed: much terrible bloodshed.
Furiously the Agitator denounces the young priest as an agent provocateur and class enemy. Let the people no longer be frightened of such vermin, he shouts. Now there are three new words which will revolutionise the whole world: equality, liberty and fraternity. Equality means there will be no more masters and no more servants, no rich and poor. Some day we will be even more equal than our masters now. Freedom means that you can speak just as the Agitator is speaking now; there will be no more mounted gendarmes to sabre down innocent demonstrators at peaceful meetings. Freedom is to decide for oneself, by drawing a red line on a ballot paper. Fraternity means that all go together against priests and warmongers. Anyone who is against fraternity will be ruthlessly destroyed.
"I travel widely and see much misery, but nowhere have I seen more misery than here", the Agitator intones, and the people respond, "Miserable is the life of the oppressed". They go on in this vein, until the agitator summons them all to go forth to the election, to vote for the candidates of his - their - party and not to let anyone deceive them. "Help the Party, and the Party will help you", he shouts. "Go forth in the name of the People Almighty!"
Riiki and Topi are together with some neighbours, reading a socialist tract and pondering the approaching election. They are puzzled, and argue among themselves. While Riika reads that it is not nature, but heartless people who make the poor miserable through their exploitation, Kaisa predicts a day of doom, for she has seen terrifying omens: sun-spots and moon-spots, and floods of black-faced rats emerging from the forest, sweeping along like wildfire - just like this new poison, spreading from village to village, seeking to destroy the Lord God's eternal order.
After some argument, Topi begins to wonder how to draw this red line. With his thumb, a neighbour remarks; but Topi still wonders how anyone can draw on paper with his thumb? Hard, the neighbour retorts, so that blood spurts out from under the thumbnail. Nonsense, says Riika: they have pencils of course; the Emperor will provide pencils and paper.
So that's how we draw, Topi says. Well, look at these hands; they have never held a pencil, just axes and spades. How would they know how to hold a pencil? It won't work.
In the middle of their speculations, they notice that the dogs have begun to bark. Not only their own dogs give tongue, but far distant ones as well. They wonder why; they cannot sense - as the dogs seem to be able to - that the big bear is turning in his winter sleep.
A group of people around the young priest, and another around the Agitator, are arguing with each other.
"Is it spring", the priest's group sings, "although the weather is kind, and birds are arriving, and the first flowers are appearing?"
"Oh you old pine-trees", the Agitator's group sings, "you cloud-scraping spruce, it is time for you to fall down…"
"Is it spring, for there is a fearful red bird flying over the country".
"…for you are dead and rotten, you babble nonsense when you intone your hymns."
"It hurries along from place to place…"
"Make way for us, we are the new growth, we will call other tunes!"
"…and never rests".
It is March 15th 1907, the time of the great election, and Riika and Topi are awestruck as they come to the polling station. "It is as quiet and serene as in a church", Topi says; even the familiar village policeman goes around all formal when he demands their names as they go to the polling booth to draw their red lines on the voting paper.
Riika is alone in a cabin, waiting for Topi to return from the logging-camp. It has been snowing for days, the weather is freezing, and every morning she has had to go and open up fresh ski-tracks for Topi. She prays for him - or indeed anyone - to come, because she is at the end of her tether. One day a messenger surely must arrive with tidings of a new dawn, a new life, with bread and clothes and even books. But no one comes, except the neighbour's wife Kaisa. She has heard that the children are ill, and she thinks she knows why. They have been smitten by that dreadful red bird - that political fever - that flew over the land like a blasphemous plague.
Was it sin to draw that red line, Raika asks. Were we the only ones who did that? Why must we - of all people - be punished? Why must the suffering fall on innocent children?
One of them is already dead. Riika and Kaisa sing their laments, as they do, Topi arrives. He is shattered to find his children dead, muttering that he must go off to buy boards for a coffin. He echoes the words he had imagined the Vicar had spoken, that "he will bury them for a reduced fee, since all three are in a single coffin".
Kunilla reads great news: their party has won the election. Now there will be an end to power of the gentry and the clergy. Land will be redistributed, the poor will be exempt from taxes, the old will be given pensions, officials will be sacked, there will be no more ostentation by the rich. There will be new learning, medical care; the poor will own their homes.
Are you blind - Kaisa snaps - that you can't see how God has punished this household for such thoughts? No, it's you who is blind, Kunilla retors; it's the oppressors' fault that these children died, for they were given no help.
Again the dogs are barking furiously. The family's only cow begins to low in terror. "It's the bear!" Riika cries, "it has awakened - there are Topi and the bear, wrestling… it kills!…. Topi, are you alive?… Topi!…."
(But Topi no longer replied. He was lying quite still on a patch of snow, and there was blood pouring out of his throat - in a thin red line.)
© Erkki Arni 1979
Simana Arhippaini bass
Young Priest bass-baritone
Raappana spoken (male)
Kunilla spoken (female)
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