Royal Opera House – Kaija Saariaho’s Innocence [UK premiere] 


Innocence – Opera in five Acts to a libretto by Sofi Oksanen [sung in various languages to a translation by Aleksi Barrière with English surtitles]

The Waitress (Tereza) – Jenny Carlstedt
The Mother-in-Law (Patricia) – Sandrine Piau
The Father-in-Law (Henrik) – Christopher Purves
The Bride (Stela) – Lilian Farahani
The Bridegroom (Tuomas) – Markus Nykänen
The Priest – Timo Riihonen
The Teacher (Cecilia) – Lucy Shelton
Student One (Markéta) – Vilma Jää
Student Two (Lilly) – Beate Mordal
Student Three (Iris) – Julie Hega
Student Four (Anton) – Simon Kluth
Student Five (Jerónimo) – Camilo Delgado Díaz
Student Six (Alexia) – Marina Dumont

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Susanna Mälkki

Simon Stone – Director
Aleksi Barrière – Dramaturg
Chloe Lamford – Sets
Mel Page – Costumes
James Farncombe – Lighting
Arco Renz – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 17 April, 2023
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Kaija Saariaho’s keenly awaited new opera was first seen at Aix-en-Provence in 2021 and now receives its debut in the UK. Its concept of an unwelcome guest or visitor at an important family or social event who upturns the world of those present, by calling up the past and causing them to examine their actions and culpability, is a well-established literary and dramatic trope, for instance in the films The Holly and the Ivy, the Danish Festen (The Celebration) and the first part of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, or J. B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls. Or the similar theme of the hypocrisies which stem from society’s unwillingness to deal with violence and its portrayal intelligently is dealt with in the films of Michael Haneke for example. But it is perhaps more innovative in the world of opera to address an issue of contemporary relevance, in this case a school shooting. The unnamed son of Henrik and Patricia has committed such an atrocity in Helsinki, some years before the roughly present time in which the work is set (at least initially) and they and their other son, Tuomas, hope to move on with the latter’s marriage to the Romanian Stela, whose wedding celebrations open the drama.

Stela articulates the stereotypical perception (outside of Finland) of the social openness and conscientiousness in that country and the Nordic region – just as Chloe Lamford’s designs evoke the simple, clean lines and the neat functional style of its architecture. However, those ideas are used as the blank slate against which the hypocritical attitudes and silences of the characters are caught up and projected, which Saariaho and her librettist Sofi Oksanen mean to expose about their country. (In a hideous irony, the murderer’s accomplice, Iris, states how her friendship with him, which led her to want to assist his crime for her own reasons, was one in which they were so close that they had no secrets.) But by setting it within an international school, they also remind us of the prevalence of violence and terrorism across the world at large, and the universal psychological phenomenon of trauma and the problem of how to come to terms with the past.

Despite the production’s insistence on visual realism and recreation of a very definite time and place, the strategy of featuring the wedding celebration at a restaurant within the same block as the school where the mass shooting took place is a dramatically potent one. (Although, as a minor quibble, if the original atrocity is meant to have occurred some ten years before the wedding ‘celebrated in the 2000s’ according to the synopsis, rather than the present, then the references among the survivors’ reminiscences to accessing their phones for various functions other than occasional phone calls as we all do now cannot be accurate as iPhones didn’t become widespread until around 2010.) But the set is not merely a simple, two-dimensional layering of the present and past separated from each other, or the one-way upsurge of guilt into the present – for example as productions of Weinberg’s recently rediscovered The Passenger have envisaged that story of a Holocaust death camp commandant, escaping her past on a ship to a new life in a different country, until a chance encounter similarly forces her to confront her heinous actions, which are replayed in the dark recess of that ship below. Instead, Simon Stone’s realisation is more suggestively dynamic in that the box on stage not only more or less continuously revolves to bring the drama’s different temporal strands into constructive and fluid spatial proximity; the various components which initially make up the restaurant of the wedding celebration gradually give way to the different parts of the school in which the shooting had taken place. The student survivors first appear within the smaller rooms between the restaurant’s dining areas and its kitchens, but they and their school impinge more and more upon the wedding, like the memories and griefs of those present.

Saariaho distinguishes the survivors within her musical setting by having them express themselves in ways that are not generally typical even of modern Classical opera – mostly they speak, with their words projected somewhat eerily from what sounds like a pre-recorded soundtrack, as though emanating from the past. The teacher (Cecilia) declaims in real time, but in a half-sung, half-spoken manner, creating the unsettling and troubled, even almost whimpering effect of Pierrot lunaire. Equally startling and haunting is the ghost of Markéta – the one student represented here who was actually shot. Saariaho’s music for her is inspired by the yoik or traditional folksong of the Sámi people of north Finland, interpreted here with supple ethereality by Vilma Jää and embodying a compelling presence on the stage and vocally – especially against the otherwise abstract musical score – as she seeks rest by asking her mother, Tereza, to “let her go” at the end of the opera.

It is the appearance of Jenny Carlstedt’s generally dignified, commandingly expressed, but suffering Tereza, as the waitress at the wedding celebration which disrupts Tuomas and his family’s attempt at a new start. Christopher Purves masters Henrik’s disturbingly cool reserve, which contrasts effectively with Sandrine Piau’s on-edge portrayal of Patricia, the clarity of her vocal tone cutting through successfully as a fragile uneasiness rather than the calm lustre for which is otherwise usually acclaimed as a singer. The fact that they are denoted the ‘Father-in-Law’ and ‘Mother-in-Law’ implies that we are to see the opera’s narrative through the eyes of Lilian Farahani’s poignantly direct Stela – both as an unwitting victim of the past crime in being used now as the instrument for Tuomas and his family to move on, and as the positive means of hope and redemption in that, as Timo Riihonen’s sonorous Priest urges, mercy may be found in love.

Although it is not shown whether she and Tuomas ultimately do have a future after the revelations brought to light, the work doesn’t necessarily end in hopelessness – either for them or Tereza – despite an impassioned performance from Markus Nykanen, evoking all the desperation of one of Britten’s tragic heroes in the style of the music given to him in his monologue near the end, when he confesses that he could have averted his brother’s crimes but didn’t do anything about it in advance and merely ran away from the school when he was supposed to stand guard as the violence was perpetrated. If there is one weakness in the opera, it is that his motivation isn’t absolutely clear – her merely says that he loved his brother and still does. The audience will decide if that fact is a sufficient reason for his having wanted to assist him in the first place. Whether he still could or should love his brother now will then take a far wider leap in sympathy. One other little mystery which isn’t addressed is that we are told ten students were killed (and one teacher who, by extrapolation, is Iris’s stepfather, who seems to have sexually abused her or come close to it, hence her desire to abet her friend’s actions). In the list enumerated in memory of the victims by the survivors, only nine names are given – there is no clue as to the identity of the tenth. It isn’t Tuomas’s brother himself, as we are told that he has served a prison sentence and now been released under a new identity (he is also briefly glimpsed as an anonymous, hooded figure in the reimagined scenes at the school in the past).

Saariaho’s lucidly-wrought score cultivates something of the delicate, uneasy equilibrium of the awkward silence or reticence contrived by Tuomas’s family to preserve their secrets – as the Students also do to some extent, since their bullying of his brother is evidently, in some sense, responsible for the murderous revenge he has taken. Susanna Mälkki, making her Royal Opera House debut in the pit, carefully prolongs that softly tense mood through the essentially continuous course of the music’s one-hundred minutes or so, with virtually no obvious structural break between the five Acts. In the near ten minutes of the prelude before the curtains rise, the ROH Orchestra aptly convey a darkly sinister, lurking evil, with the vague jazz inflections of trumpet and percussion adding a somewhat lurid or sleazy patina. After that, rather than graphically depicting events or emotions, the music sustains a lyrical but unyielding melancholy through a wealth of quietly diffused instrumental colours – less shimmering, more subdued than that of L’Amour du loin, given the opera’s subject, but identifiably by the same composer and ably nurtured here by the orchestra. The unseen ROH Chorus underlays, echoes, or comments upon the Students’ words and voices, conjuring the realm of the latter’s memory with their fragmentary reminiscences and recalling of the traumatic events they experienced.

The opera doesn’t particularly offer any new insights into trauma and grief, or any explanations for why people commit such senseless violence. But it is neither glib nor sensational and provides, instead, a subtle reflection upon the after-effects of tragedy, and how the past plays into the present – if, for Proust, his literary project was to reclaim time, here it is innocence that is attempted to be regained after all that intervened, rather than merely harked back to nostalgically.

Further performances to May 4

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