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Aulis Sallinen

Publisher: Novello & Co

King Lear ('Kuningas Lear') (1999)
commissioned by the Finnish National Opera, Helsinki
Text Writer
in Finnish by Matti Rossi, from William Shakespeare; English translation by Philip Binham
Novello & Co Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
2 Hours 50 Minutes
English, Finnish, German
Solo Instrument(s)
2 Sopranos, Mezzo Soprano, 3 Tenors, 3 Baritones, Bass
Programme Note
Aulis Sallinen King Lear ('Kuningas Lear') (1999)

Aulis Sallinen’s retelling of the Shakespeare tragedy. In trying to decide to whom he should give the greater portion of his kingdom, King Lear asks his three daughters which of them loves him most. Goneril and Regan vie with each other in their declarations of love, while Cordelia enrages her father by refusing to put her feelings into words. Meanwhile,
Edmund, bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester plots against his brother Edgar, his father’s natural heir. As the families become increasingly entangled in a web of lies and hunger for power, they move ever closer to a tragic and bloody conclusion.



Act I
Scene 1

King Lear wishes to divide his kingdom among his three daughters because of his advanced age. He asks his daughters to tell him which one of them loves him the most so that he might give her the best portion. Both Goneril and Regan declare their endless love for their father, but the youngest daughter, Cornelia, her father's pet, refuses to put her love into words. Half her love will belong to the man she will marry. Lear flies into a rage and denies his daughter. The King of France has arrived to propose marriage to Cordelia, and even though she is disinherited, he takes her with him.

Goneril and Regan are worried about their father's whims and about the fact he continues to keep a retinue of 100 knights and their squires.

Scene 2 (Gloucester's castle)

Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, is bitter because his slightly older brother Edgar is the Earl's only legal heir. Edmund decides to gain the inheritance through intrigue. He has the Earl discover a forged letter implicating Edgar in a plot to murder the Earl.

Gloucester finds this hard to believe, but he charges Edmund to find out more. Edmund tells Edgar that their father is enraged and suggests that Edgar should flee. Edmund then wounds himself and tells the Earl that Edgar wounded him because he would not agree to kill his father. Gloucester issues an order to arrest Edgar, who has fled in panic.

Scene 3 (Forest)

Edgar manages to escape his pursuers by hiding in a hollow tree. His only hope of evading capture is to disguise himself as a beggar. Thus, Poor Tom is born.

Scene 4 (Cornwall's castle)

Lear and his retinue have noted that Regan and her household have become distinctly cool towards them. Finally, Regan says outright that she cannot bear the taunting of the Fool or the noise made by Lear's knights. She requests the King to reduce the size of his retinue.

Lear curses Regan and turns to Goneril, who has just arrived. She supports her sister, and they both finally demand that the King dispense with his retinue altogether. Lear curses both of them and rushes madly into the storm.

Act II
Scene 5 (Gloucester's castle)

Gloucester, who remains loyal to the King, is being bullied in his own castle. The Earl has received a secret message about the landing of the French army. He gives the message to Edmund for safekeeping, because he does not dare keep it himself. Edmund sees an opportunity for disposing of his father and gives the letter to the Duke of Cornwall.

Scene 6 (Forest)

Lear, whose mind has shattered, wanders around with the Fool. They are joined by Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom the beggar. Lear organizes a court session to pass judgement on his cruel daughters.

Scene 7 (Albany's castle)

Goneril and Edmund are having a clandestine affair, sealed by Goneril in a letter she gives to Edmund. She accuses her husband, the Duke of Albany, of softness and indecision in the face of the French threat.

A group of knights report the death of the Duke of Cornwall. He was killed by his own servant after he and his wife Regan had put out the eyes of Gloucester, whom they considered a traitor. Goneril is tormented by the thought that Regan is now a widow and Edmund is with her.

Scene 8 (Forest)

Gloucester, now blind, wanders on the road and is met by Edgar, still disguised as Poor Tom. Not recognizing his own son, the Earl asks Poor Tom to lead him to the cliff at Dover. After that, he will require no further assistance.

King Lear enters, and the two tormented old men meet for the last time. Lear's knights also arrive and escort the King to Cordelia.

Scene 9 (The British camp near Dover)

As battle between the British and the French is imminent, Goneril and Regan are vying for the possession of Edmund. Edmund, on the other hand, is calculating which one of them would be more useful to him. He reads Goneril's letter again; it describes a plot to get rid of Albany after victory in battle.

The battle is joined, and the British are victorious.

Scene 10 (The British Camp)

King Lear and Cordelia, who have been taken prisoner, are brought in. They have been reconciled and foresee a happy future in prison. Goneril and Regan explode in a fit of mutual jealousy. The latter feels ill and is taken away.

A knight in armour arrives and challenges Edmund, whom he calls a traitor, to a duel. Edmund is beaten, and the knight turns out to be his brother Edgar. The brothers make an attempt at reconciliation, but Goneril sides with Edmund and considers that he has been betrayed. Albany then takes out the letter that Edmund has just given to him, revealing his wife's treachery.

Goneril leaves. Edgar says that his father, Gloucester, is dead. Knights enter with the news that Goneril has taken her own life after confessing to poisoning her sister Regan.

Edmund then reveals his orders to kill the King and Cordelia and orders men to go quickly to the castle where they are being held. But they are too late: the King enters bearing the corpse of Cordelia and dies by her side, a broken man.

© Aulis Sallinen


King Lear (bass)
Goneril (soprano)
Regan (soprano)
Cordelia (mezzo)
Gloucester (baritone)
Edmund (tenor)
Edgar (baritone)
Albany (baritone)
Cornwall (tenor)
Fool (tenor)

Preview the score:

Act II

"…Lear was sustained by the lyrical intensity of the music. Sallinen's lyricism remains rooted in post-Romanticism, yet it is infused with enough modernistic elements to keep it sounding fresh."
George W. Loomis, Opera News,01/01/2001
"Finnish National Opera is particularly proud of its record of presenting new work. This month has seen the premiere of the seventh opera written by one of the country's senior composers, Aulis Sallinen … (who) has an almost Puccini-like knack of keeping an audience's attention. The orchestral style is post-Romantic and tonal, the vocal lines are broadly phrased and gratifying to sing."
Rupert Christiansen, The Daily Telegraph,03/10/2000
"The new opera - which also has a formidable protagonist in bass Matti Salminen - makes it clear that Shakespeare's play is indeed quintessential operatic material. And it is a tribute to Sallinen's skill as a musical dramatist that this was all so readily apparent. His "King Lear" makes for gripping musical theater."
George W. Loomis, Musical,21/09/2000
"… King Lear was eagerly awaited. The cream of Finnish singing talent had been engaged, and the new opera rewards them with music that is often beautiful and never less than vocally gratifying. Sallinen … whittles down the dialogue, cuts the part of Kent, inflates the Fool and invents a chorus. You can't help admiring the well-manufactured finish of the orchestral writing, and where atmosphere is needed, Sallinen comes up with apt devices: a cello cantilena shadowing Lear on the heath, an atmospheric celesta when the blinded Gloucester sees the light."
Andrew Clark, Financial Times,20/09/2000
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