Saariaho’s deeply moving opera Innocence opens in Helsinki

FinlandFinland Kaija Saariaho, Innocence: Chorus and Orchestra of the Finnish National Opera / Clément Mao-Takacs (conductor). Finnish National Opera, Helsinki, 26.10.2022. (GF)

Wedding Party: Iida Antola (Stela), Tuomas Pursio (Henrik) and Jyrki Korhonen (Priest) © Ilkka Saastamoinen

Libretto – Sofi Oksanen
Dramaturge and translator – Aleksi Barrière
Director – Simon Stone
Sets – Chloe Lamford
Costumes – Mel Page
Lighting design – James Farncombe
Sound design – Timo Kurkikangas
Choreography – Arco Renz

The Waitress (Tereza) – Jenny Carlstedt
The Mother-in Law (Patricia) – Anu Komsi
The Father-in-Law (Henrik) – Tuomas Pursio
The Bride (Stela) – Iida Antola
The Bridegroom (Tuomas) – Markus Nykänen
The Priest – Jyrki Korhonen
The Teacher – Lucy Shelton
Markéta (Student 1) – Vilma Jää
Lilly (Student 2) – My Johansson
Iris (Student 3) – Julie Hega
Anton (Student 4) – Simon Kluth
Jerónimo (Student 5) – Camilo Delgado Diaz
Alexia (Student 6) – Olga Heikkilä

Extras – Inka Auvinen, Jul Han, Pila Lehto, Janne Mattila, Sini Parkkinen, Janina Taurinen, Sointu Toiskallio, Miika Alatupa

The coming into being of Innocence originated in the spring of 2013, when Kaija Saariaho invited Sofi Oksanen and Aleksi Barrière to dinner after having been contacted by the Royal Opera House ‘about possibly writing an opera inspired by the contemporary world’, and she was excited about the opportunity to compose a work involving multiple characters languages and perspectives on the same event. The process developed slowly but in the summer of 2020 rehearsals began, with a scheduled premiere that summer. Due to the pandemic it had to be postponed, however, and the work was first performed during the 2021 Aix-en-Provence Festival on July 3rd, to great acclaim (review here).

Vilma Jää (Markéta) © Ilkka Saastamoinen

It is a complex work in five acts that seamlessly follow each other and are enacted on two different timelines: a wedding party in the present and a traumatic event of ten years earlier that deeply affected the wedding guests. At times the two timelines run in parallel and overlap. Structurally one can say that the story is a jigsaw puzzle, where new pieces are added gradually, ultimately giving the onlooker a complete picture of the great tragedy affecting all thirteen characters. The story unfolds in a two-storied revolving cube. On the lower level are the restaurant and the wedding reception, on the upper level is an international school, the scene of the tragic event, a school shooting killing ten students and a teacher. The actual shooting is not shown, but there are horrible scenes with slain bodies and bloodstains on the walls.

In the basic story Tuomas and Stela, he Finnish, she Romanian, are getting married. Stela is happy and unaware of the tragedy that befell the family ten years earlier. At the wedding party a Czech waitress, Tereza, is called in to help. She finds out that she knew the groom’s family. For her the family ‘ended her life ten years ago’. On the parallel timeline six students and their teacher discuss what happened, and it turns out that one of the students is Tereza’s daughter Markéta, who was killed in the tragedy. The bridegroom’s mother wants to invite her eldest son to the wedding, but the father warns that he doesn’t belong to the family anymore. The audience learns that the brother was the shooter and has recently been released from prison. Tereza reveals this to Stela and the wedding guests, but the mother defends her son and says that Markéta was also to blame, since she bullied her son. On the other timeline the students confirm this. In the last act, Tuomas reveals that he, his brother and Iris, a friend of both, planned the shooting together, but at the last moment Tuomas and Iris got cold feet, leaving the perpetrator to carry out the crime out on his own. In the end no one – except possibly Stela – is really innocent, everyone feels guilty in some respect. No one can escape their past. In the short epilogue, some of the survivors express hopes for a more positive future, while Markéta appears a final time, telling her mother to ‘let her go’. It is a deeply moving story with a densely emotional libretto that never releases the intensity, not even for a second.

Innocence is a remarkably multi-facetted work of art, providing multiple perspective on the characters and the traumas narrated. The thirteen characters are individually outlined, and yet none of them are main characters. They express themselves in various ways, from ‘traditional’ operatic singing to spoken, half-spoken and folk music inspired expressions. The role of Markéta stands out, as performed by Vilma Jää, a folk music singer who sings old Karelian songs with a bright, light high-pitched soprano voice, angelic in tone. Interesting is also the fact that the shooting takes place in an international school and includes singing in no less than nine different languages. Kaija Saariaho’s score requires a large orchestra with a multitude of colours, but it is not a work dominated by the orchestra, which is largely subordinate to the voices. The ‘overture’, played before the curtain rises, begins in dark, ominous colours. Then comes a bassoon solo, a short, beautiful melody, that is repeated several times. Near the end of the opera it returns, but only once. The meaning of this motif eludes me – unless it is innocence.

Director Simon Stone has obviously worked in close harmony with composer, librettist and dramaturge and the whole production feels very homogenous. It is worth noting that several members of the cast also took part in the world premiere at Aix-en-Provence last year. Tuomas Pursio as the Father-in-Law and Markus Nykänen as his son Tuomas were excellent in their roles, I have already mentioned Vilma Jää’s Markéta, and several of the other students also repeated their roles. Of the newcomers Jenny Carlstedt was a very convincing Tereza and Anu Komsi a brilliant Mother-in-Law. Iida Antola drew a sensitive portrait of the innocent Stela, while Jyrki Korhonen was a very subdued Priest who has lost his faith. The playing and singing of the chorus and orchestra under the young Clément Mao-Takacs were of the highest order.

This is an opera that remains in one’s memory and thoughts long after the curtain went down. I feel privileged to have had the good fortune to experience it and hope that many more will seize the opportunity.

Göran Forsling

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