The Sublime Terror of “Innocence” by Kaija Saariaho
Kaija Saariaho’s opera “Innocence”, which premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival on July 3, contains one of the most disturbing scenes I have seen in a theater. About forty minutes after the start of the piece, in a scene marked “IT”, the choir sings the phrase “When it happened” in an offbeat rhythm, with a low piano and double basses hitting every syllable. A frame drum strikes sixteenth notes in rapid bursts, and two trumpets unleash a series of “tears” – rapid, upward screeching glissandos. Then the orchestral chaos comes to an abrupt end; the sopranos awkwardly oscillate between the notes A flat and G; and the brutal rhythm resumes in the percussions. The terror is made explicit on stage, as a high school student stumbles through a door, his arms covered in blood. A shooter, a classmate, sieges a Finnish international school. Opera, which has been making art from death for over four centuries, records a new genre of horror.
The shock of the moment is redoubled by the fact that the public hardly discovers what opera really is. At first, a strangely sad wedding reception is underway, at a restaurant in Finland. The groom’s brother was involved in an unnamed tragedy ten years ago; the bride, an immigrant from Romania, knows nothing about this story. A waitress is disgusted when she learns which family has hired her for a wedding: her daughter died in the drama in question. Evasive phrases of politeness and shame hide the details of what happened until the performers begin to stage the memories of the survivors.
The libretto is by the Finnish-Estonian novelist Sofi Oksanen, who knows how to play on our expectations and then bypass them. The title is ironic: the characters refuse to organize themselves into a simplistic array of heroes and villains. The killer is never heard of, although there are glimpses of him as a bullied child. The rest is chaotic: media sensationalism and political double talk have done their work. The groom confesses that he is delighted with the news of new shootings, as they confirm that “the monsters are also being raised in other families”. A teacher subjects her students’ homework to paranoid analysis, looking for signs of mental instability: “I pointed out any strange syntax in their essays, any changes in their writing, until I understood that I was no longer fit to teach. “
The psychological thriller components of “Innocence” mark a shift for Saariaho, who rose to fame using modernist and avant-garde techniques to summon dreamlike spheres from another world. Its most famous score is the opera “L’Amour de Loin”, premiered in Salzburg in 2000 and arrived at the Met in 2016; it magnificently evokes the rarefied aspirations of the 12th century troubadour Jaufré Rudel. Saariaho’s second opera, “Adriana Mater” (2006), turns to contemporary reality, telling of a woman raped in wartime, but its approach is more meditative and abstract. “Innocence”, which Saariaho completed in 2018, has a bubbling rawness. It is as if the turmoil of recent years had pushed her to abandon aesthetic distance and enter the fray of reality.
Saariaho said in an interview that she modeled “Innocence” on two shocking early 20th century expressionists, “Elektra” and “Wozzeck”. Like these operas, “Innocence” lasts less than two hours, its five acts and twenty-five scenes unfold without interruption. The orchestral prologue presents familiar elements of Saariaho’s sonic world: solo woodwind and brass lines that twirl or trill in place; strange horological ostinatos with celesta and harp; grandiose textures for a complete set. Sharper, more propulsive patterns soon appear, but they rarely establish a steady forward motion. The atmosphere is both sensual and unstable, fear in bright colors.
Generational and demographic divisions in the opera community are evident in a controlled feud of vocal styles. The members of the wedding party – labeled Bride, Groom, Mother-in-law, Father-in-law, Priest, and Waitress – are conventional singing parties. Five survivors of the shooting are interpreted by actors or singing comedians, who speak, variously, Swedish, French, Spanish, German and Greek. An English teacher sings his lines in Sprechstimme, the half-spoken, half-sung manner associated with Schoenberg’s vocal works. Markéta, the shooting victim mourned by her waitress mother, makes ghostly visits, her folkloric and singing melodies cutting out the dominant density of Saariaho’s harmonic textures.
The first Aix production, directed by Simon Stone, was hypernaturalist, opposing the ordinary to the unthinkable. Set designer Chloe Lamford, working with lighting designer James Farncombe, has assembled a beautifully drab ensemble of dining rooms, kitchens, classrooms, bathrooms and stairwells. The year could have been any since 1950, but Mel Page’s costumes reduced the time limit to the first two thousand. The whole rested on a rotating plate in constant motion; in the final stages of the opera, as trauma resurfaces, school spaces replaced the wedding venue, splashes of blood appearing on stained white walls. (Agile stagehands pulled off quick set changes.) The cinematic fluidity of the show proved to be just as effective on a video stream, which I watched a week after the premiere.
At the head of the cast was Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, who embodied the role of the Waitress with tireless expressive force. Sandrine Piau and Lilian Farahani drew nuanced portraits of the Mother-in-law and the Bride; Tuomas Pursio and Markus Nykänen sometimes struggled with the acting demands of stepfather and groom, respectively. Lucy Shelton was heartbreaking as a teacher, who conveys the bruised moral core of opera. Among the actor-singers, Vilma Jää exuded an almost demonic purity in the role of Markéta, and Julie Hega made a haunting, hoarse riddle of student Iris, who unexpectedly dominates the final scenes. Susanna Mälkki, head of the London Symphony Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, displayed customary precision and authority.
“Innocence” will travel a lot: the Met and the San Francisco Opera will be presenting the work in the coming seasons. I wonder how the American public will cope with its ruthless approach to a subject which, for several decades, has been locked in accelerated cycles of national madness. No false tone of healing or hope sounds at the end; instead, the circles of complicity keep widening. What saves the opera from total darkness is the beauty inherent in Saariaho’s writing. In the final bars, a dark, glowing harmony emerges, somewhere in the vicinity of the B major, although a dissonant C in the double basses prevents full resolution. Worryingly or not, it is the same note on which the opera begins.
An easing of pandemic restrictions allowed Aix to put together a full program this summer, with eight opera productions. Aside from ‘Innocence’, the most elaborate offering was ‘Tristan und Isolde’, with Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony. Stone was the director again and, as usual, he carried wonderfully detailed realistic sets with him: the first act takes place in a luxurious Parisian skyscraper, the second in an architect’s office, the third in the metro. . The concept is however hackneyed: Isolde in high bourgeoisie who escapes an unhappy marriage by dreaming of his life in mythical terms. For the most part, the vanity doesn’t match Wagner’s drama, though the subway sequences reach for surreal poetry. The lead roles, Nina Stemme and Stuart Skelton, were the same as when Rattle led “Tristan” at the Met in 2016. On the second night of the race, Stemme did not reach his usual level, but Skelton was in total command. , singing with superhuman intensity through the tenor slaughterhouse of Act III.
Another evening, I took a bus to Arles for the premiere of Samir Odeh-Tamimi’s musical “L’Apocalypse Arabe”, based on a poetic cycle by the Lebanese-American author and artist Etel Adnan. The performance took place in the Grande Halle of the Luma Arles artistic complex, in the asymmetrical shade of Frank Gehry’s new Luma tower. Adnan’s text evokes the long nightmare of the Lebanese civil war; Odeh-Tamimi, an Israeli-Palestinian composer who has long resided in Germany, responds with a molten score, mixing jagged instrumental textures with rumbling electronics. The poems are variously sung and recited by a five-member female choir and a male observer known as the Witness. The staging, by Pierre Audi, director general of Aix, lingered on paintings of characters silhouetted against a desert sun. After a startling start, the work failed to take off as a drama, its imagery oblique and repetitive. Still, baritone Thomas Oliemans fought convincingly in the lead role, and Ilan Volkov got some powerful playing from the Modern Ensemble.
A few hours before seeing “Innocence”, I attended a baroque theatrical program called “Combattimento: The Black Swan Theory”. The staging concept, by Silvia Costa, was largely unintelligible, but the music was so superb that the random appearance of nativity scenes and mushroom clouds could be safely ignored. The Ensemble Correspondances, under the direction of Sébastien Daucé, led a sumptuous grand tour of 17th century Italian vocalism, placing Monteverdi’s madrigale-cantata “Combatimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” alongside extracts from operas and oratorios by Francesco Cavalli, Luigi Rossi and Giacomo Carissimi. In the midst of a formidable formation of young singers, the mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot stood out with her brilliant interpretation of “Alle ruine del mio regno”, the apocalyptic aria of Hecuba taken from “Didone” by Cavalli. Following Saariaho’s monumental cry against violence, I thought about the fallen Queen of Troy and her search for a “way to mourn, beyond tears”. That way it’s music then like today. ♦