Saariaho – Innocence
Waitress – Magdalena Kožená
Mother-in-Law – Sandrine Piau
Father-in-Law – Tuomas Pursio
Bride – Lilian Farahani
Groom – Markus Nykänen
Priest – Jukka Rasilainen
Teacher – Lucy Shelton
Student 1 (Marketa) – Vila Jää
Student 2 (Lilly) – Beate Mordal
Student 3 – Julie Hega
Student 4 – Simon Kluth
Student 5 (Jeronimo) – Camilo Delgado Díaz
Student 6 – Marina Dumont
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, London Symphony Orchestra / Susanna Mälkki.
Stage director – Simon Stone.
Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France. Monday, July 12th, 2021.
Kaija Saariaho’s opera Innocence should have been the centrepiece of last year’s Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, but unfortunately the run was cancelled after the first stage-piano rehearsals due to the cancellation of the festival itself during the health emergency. Fortunately, the festival was able to reschedule the premiere for this year’s edition and invited the original cast, alongside the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the London Symphony Orchestra under Susanna Mälkki, to give the work its belated premiere.
And how lucky we are to have experienced it. Saariaho, alongside novelist Sofi Oksonen and translator Aleksi Barrière, has given us nothing short of a masterpiece. This is what opera should be – a story that engages, grips even, in a soundworld of incredible complexity, given performances in a staging that leaves one utterly transfixed from beginning to end. In a note in the program book, Saariaho mentions how she was attracted to creating a compact work that would last no more than an hour and forty-five minutes. What we get is an engrossing experience that just refuses to let us go. Whenever I attend a new work, I like to read up on it in advance, read the libretto if possible, read interviews with the composer and interpreters. Here, I almost wished that I hadn’t, because the piece itself is so accessible, pulls you into the sheer intrigue of the story, that one benefits from not knowing what happens next.
Oksonen and Barrière set the work in contemporary Finland. A Czech waitress, Tereza, is called in at the last moment to work a wedding when her colleague calls in sick. During the wedding, Tereza is forced to confront her past. The wedding itself, is contrasted with events at an international school ten years previously. The cast contains thirteen principals and contrasts the opera singers at the wedding, with actors and singers from non-operatic backgrounds who act out the flashback. It sounds when written down like this like it might not actually work. But it does and helps to clarify the narrative, due to the juxtaposition between the operatic and non-operatic singing and acting. Saariaho succeeds in this by creating characters with individually distinct vocal lines and orchestral accompaniment. These include the extraordinary Finnish folk singer and scholar, Vila Jää, who displayed vocal feats of astounding virtuosity, the voice elastic in its soaring melismas.
Oksonen and Barrière’s libretto switches between English as a common language and characters speaking/singing their own languages. This is a reminder of a Europe that we have come to know, where marriages and relationships cross borders and languages, and free movement is taken as a given. Saariaho’s orchestral writing is staggering in its sophistication. Her score has a dark violent core, yet contrasts it with the brightness of bells, a reminder of a time when the future held promise, or hazy strings that recall the past. The chorus remains offstage amplifying the textures in a glow of sound, occasionally singing words, at other times adding a halo to the texture that suggested both innocence and a threat. The effect was compounded by the singing of the Estonians who, with their impeccable blend and clarity of tuning, offered singing that was outstanding in its accuracy. Needless to say, Susanna Mälkki led her forces with great assurance, obtaining playing of astounding tonal variety from the LSO and allowed the performance to emerge with absolutely unanimity of approach throughout the vast cast.
Simon Stone gave us an equally virtuosic production. He used a revolving set to give us varying views of the action, making full use of the timeline as the evening developed. Through the cast he showed us much of the story, yet also allowed us to fill the gaps in our mind by ourselves, which made the staging even more impactful. The direction of the cast was utterly naturalistic – no standing and delivering here – and every single member of the cast created believable individuals who brought their individual stories to life. I would love to discuss it further but fear in doing so will just give spoilers.
Magdalena Kožená sang Tereza in her ageless mezzo, the tone still limpid and full of beauty. While Tereza’s vocal lines sat mainly in the middle voice, Saariaho also gave Kožená the opportunity to use a generous chest register. Sandrine Piau’s soprano is similarly ageless and here, as the Mother-in-law, she was given some soaring lines which she dispatched with her trademark purity of tone. Tuomas Pursio sang the Father with a baritone that was appropriately world-weary in tone. Lilian Farahani sang the Bride in a sunny soprano with a genuine trill. Markus Nykänen sang the Husband in a healthy tenor with impressive English diction, one I’d certainly like to hear in some of the big Britten roles one day. Jukka Rasilainen sang the Priest in an appropriately dark and impassioned bass.
The actors spoke their lines with clarity and precision. Lucy Shelton, as the Teacher, was required to use sprechgesang which she did in a still-firm soprano with assurance of pitching. Simon Kluth injected his lines with a gripping sense of fear, while Camilo Delgado Díaz, an operatically trained tenor, spoke his lines with clarity and filled them with feeling. Julie Hega, who also used sprechgesang, was a haunting stage presence and dispatched her lines with musicality.
This was an astounding evening – one that will live long in the memory as the opportunity to experience a great work given the very best performance possible. Saariaho, and the entire creative team, have given us a piece that will be one of the major operas of the twenty-first century. Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to see a number of new works. Yet none has had the visceral impact of this one. It displays an invention and sophistication of orchestral and vocal writing that is endlessly fascinating. The libretto itself is masterfully constructed and the staging feels as one with the work itself. This was a truly great evening in the theatre.