Review: A musician creates his masterpiece with ‘Innocence’

Aix-en-Provence, France – “Innocence,” new opera by kaija sariahoBegins in soft, gloomy sadness. A shadowy haze of cymbals rises long, sepulcheral tones in the bass and contrabass down, before a Keening piece of bassoon calms down with sad lyrics.

It’s only a few seconds of music, but a mood is established—widely, unforgettably, yet subtly. Before we know the plot of “innocence,” we realize it: something deeper and deeper has happened, leaving the memory shrouded in mourning, in an uncertain future.

We keep feeling it in the hundred minutes to come, because we know a tragedy and its echo deeply. Gorgeous yet restrained, a thriller that is also a meditation, “Innocence” is the most powerful work Sariaho has written in her career so far in her fifth decade.

Here’s what’s visible at the Aix-en-Provence Festival (and July) since July 12 . streaming on on Saturday) after its planned debut in 2020 was cancelled, it will also be the year’s premiere in a normal season – even if its audience isn’t so hungry for real, big, important, live opera after so many months. It deserves to go far beyond an already global itinerary: the Metropolitan Opera in Helsinki, Amsterdam, London, San Francisco, New York.

It is undoubtedly the work of a mature master, in so complete control of her resources that she can focus only on telling a story and illuminating the characters. Unlike so many contemporary operas, “Innocence”—featuring the powerful London Symphony Orchestra, conducted with sensitivity and control by Susanna Malki—feels more or less a sung drama with a disconnected, elaborately self-contained orchestral soundtrack. Does not happen.

In fact, during the performances, on Tuesdays, I tried to listen to the instrumental lines and their interplay from time to time, but despite the apparent virtuosity and density of the score, my ears kept rising back to the stage, clearly. From , hard action, integrated theatrical whole. porous and nimble; Boil under and around voids; And only occasionally, briefly exploding, is it music as a vehicle for exploring and intensifying the drama. It is complex, yet so self-assured that it simply does not exist for itself.

With a libretto by Finnish author Sophie Oksanen and translation work by Aleksei Barriere into more than half a dozen languages, “Innocence” is set in 21st-century Helsinki, where a deadly shooting at an international school takes place. The action goes back and forth between six consecutive students and a memory of the disaster by a teacher, and a teacher who goes through it, and a wedding party taking place 10 years later.

It quickly becomes clear that the two events are linked. The groom is the shooter’s brother, and his family, who are ostracized and desperate to move on from what happened, has kept the whole thing from the bride. (If that wasn’t enough, there’s a reason a waitress is strung around, jaw-dropped, at the wedding: She’s the mother of one of the victims.)

There is enough operatic precedent for an innocent young woman blindly directed by her lover into a world of violence and deceit: think Bartók’s “Bluebird’s Castle” and Debussy’s “Pelieus et Melisande”. “Innocence” recalls those, as well as the brutal economy of Berg’s “Wozek” and Strauss’s “Elektra” in its relatively modest, intermission length.

But “innocence” is very much a part of our time, and – in its game of many languages ​​and in the register of speaking and singing – very much. Sariaho gave it the working title of “fresco”; It was inspired he has spoken, by “The Last Supper”, from which he drew broad questions of the size of the cast (13 soloists) and the piece and the connected yet different experiences of those who shared a trauma.

The members of the wedding party sing: The groom, in a tenor, boisterous sermons; The Bride, a soprano, with melodious lyricism. A priest, the only friend left with the family, grumbles ominously about his lost faith.

On the other hand, the remaining students and teachers speak – although in precise rhythms artistically composed to suit their respective languages ​​of Czech, Swedish, French, German, Spanish, Greek and English. The waitress’s daughter, Marketa (a memorable rapt Wilma Jaa), appears as a kind of phantom, who sings in the eerie plain style of Finnish folk music. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, outside the stage, signifies a world beyond the feverish hothouse of conspiracy. All these different vocal worlds are intertwined by the orchestra, which wraps light and smooth around the singers – never clearly outlining them, never competing.

The cast matches Sariaho’s score in their commitment and discipline, refusing to overplay or fall into the Grand Gignolle. As a waitress, Magdalena Kozhena is a laser beam of pain; As the mother of the groom, Sandrine Piau painstakingly conjures up the supernatural effect of a thread-thin voice.

Saariaho’s previous operas—starting with the stylized medieval parable “L’Amour de Loin” (2000)—were mostly collaborations with director Peter Sellers, lending canonical works to ritual abstractions. Here, however, she benefits from a hypernatural staging by Simon Stone, whose style anchors “Innocence” in reality without indicating its true fluidity. (Chloe Lamford’s rotating, ever-changing two-story set, an anxiety-inducing mix of school and restaurant, is a key player in the drama.)

The story unfolds with the crushing inevitability – and sick surprise – of ancient Greek drama. Varying degrees of guilt slowly seep out from the shooter and even seemingly innocent characters are involved. a gun was inadvertently provided; Suspicious behavior not reported; A boy was brutally beaten up and assaulted.

It’s not an unfamiliar plot, and like any fantastic opera, “Innocence” would seem flat if its text was given as a play. Instead the nuances are taken into account thanks to the music; vowel varieties; Saariaho’s notice, even though she gives an obvious story, is that there is much more to it than what has been told. Opera, as it has always been, is here a house of emotions that may come across as flat, unimaginably extreme, but which are presented as new mystical and naturalistic.

“Innocence” also draws depth from the politics and history from which it emerged. Given such events, it is difficult not to think of Europe, in and around this period, an international school, and its formation as a federation in the wake of unspeakable violence. had a dream that the trauma would prove to be united; We have seen the gradual realization that the opposite is true. In the transition from earlier times – vernacular languages ​​and folk songs – to English and the language of musical modernity, society has benefited little on this platform. It certainly doesn’t have the ability to fully integrate new members to function.

Yet the final moments of the opera are not without a certain hopeless hope. Students describe small steps they took to move on from tragedy; Betty’s vision asks the waitress to stop buying her birthday presents, let her go. The music is sad at this, but the dissonance goes through a sublime moment of harmony—the sunlight—before turning back into tension, then upwards of pure shimmer, almost toneless. It is both through and beyond the music, that Sariaho comes to an ending that is not, oddly, utterly exhilarating.


from 12 July at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, France; and . live broadcast on 10 July;

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