The Finnish composer’s most ambitious opera disturbs and enthrals the first night audience at Covent Garden.
A wedding is in full swing. The bride is all smiles. The groom looks distracted. His parents watch proceedings with a sense of concern. Almost simultaneously we see students in a school – scared, hiding, and bloodied.
So begins Finnish composer’s Kaija Saariaho’s latest opera, Innocence, which premiered at the Aix Festival in 2001 to rapturous acclaim. Hailed in certain quarters as her operatic masterpiece, this 100 minute opera is certainly a radical departure from her previous output for the stage. With 13 named characters, a large orchestra and offstage chorus, Innocence is a giant leap from the chamber-like conversational works which first gave notice of an exceptional musical-dramatic talent.
Here, collaborating with librettist Sofì Oksanen and director Simon Stone, Saariaho tackles the subject of a school shooting and its aftermath on an interwoven set of characters whom fate draws together ten years later. Given the sensitivity of the subject matter, turning such a tragedy – that horrifyingly now seems embedded into contemporary American culture – into an opera needs delicate handling.
Luckily, all three driving forces behind this creative endeavour succeed in making the characters and story utterly believable. In lesser hands this tragedy could have become voyeuristic – the plight of the protagonists sensationalised. What they achieve here, however, is a disturbing modern-day parable on what motivates people to act a certain way, and the destructive nature of secrets and lies.
Saariaho could very easily have tailored her score to the inherent violence of the story, yet it’s testament to her skill as a composer for the stage, that much of her writing is understated. She has a keen ear for orchestral colours and textures, and crucially it felt that the score was driving the drama, rather than being a mere soundtrack to the events that unfolded before our eyes.
“…Innocence is a giant leap from the chamber-like conversational works…”
She and Oksanen introduce a poleaxing twist towards the end, which comes as a real shock, which I won’t spoil here, but suffice it to say in light of this revelation you’re forced to rethink what’s gone before, and question the whole notion of ‘innocence’. The entire work holds you in its grip from start to finish, and while there’s little, if anything, that could be described as uplifting in Innocence, it gets under your skin and stays with you long after the final curtain.
Musically and dramatically the performance was of an exceptionally high standard. Director Simon Stone draws wonderfully vivid performances from every member of the large cast, and within Chloe Lamford’s revolving box set depicts events with a cinematic sweep complete with an unerring eye to detail. His gut-wrenching staging of Yerma remains one of the most disturbing and visceral pieces of theatre I’ve seen, so his ability to hold an audience in his vice-like grip here comes as no surprise.
Saariaho’s compatriot, Susanna Mälkki, made her belated Royal Opera debut, and conducted a mesmerising account of the score, alive to all its twists and turns. She was rewarded with thrilling and idiomatic playing – all sections of The Royal Opera House orchestra were in blistering form, while the eerie, offstage singing of the Chorus was both evocative and spine-tingling.
It seems invidious to mention individual singers, given the overall homogeneity of the cast, in what was a true ensemble evening, but as the Bridegroom’s Parents, Sandrine Piau and Christopher Purves were vocally resplendent. She caught all the character’s neuroses, while he portrayed the character’s inner torment with a rare sense of authenticity and faultless diction. As The Waitress, Jenny Carlstedt was unbearably moving as she doggedly refused to let the spirit of her daughter, Markéta, leave – infusing her singing with ever-increasing despair as the evening progressed. As Markéta, Vilma Jää caught the youngster’s sense of anger and bewilderment at what happened perfectly, her ethereal, Finnish yodelling casting an otherwordly spell over proceedings.
Markus Nykänen (The Bridegroom) displayed a pleasing, virile tenor – his dark secret kept under wraps until the final calamitous climax, while Lilian Farahani’s transformation from his carefree, happy bride to a woman crushed by the revelations at the close was expertly charted. The rest of the cast, in both speaking and singing roles, excelled.
Given the nature of the material, Innocence isn’t an easy opera to sit through – yet the first night audience listened in rapt silence, and was enthusiastic at the final curtain, reserving the loudest ovation of the night for the composer. There are only four more performances. Don’t miss it.
• Further details of future performances can be found here.