Saariaho’s Innocence at Covent Garden is music of our time at its most powerful

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Saariaho, Innocence (2018): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Susanna Mälkki (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 26.4.2023. (CC)

A scene from Innocence  © Tristram Kenton

Kaija Saariaho (born Helsinki, 1952) attended the Sibelius Academy; but after hearing the music of Gérard Grisey (a French Spectralist) at Darmstadt in 1980, she left for Paris. Her music is often heard as ‘softer’ in comparison to her Nordic contemporaries – the opera L’Amour de loin (2000) exemplifies this well (it was premiered in the UK at English National Opera in 2009); her preoccupation has often been that of light (Lichtbogen, for example, is a response to the Northern Lights in the Arctic sky). Orchestration and texture become vitally important in Lichtbogen, and such is the case also with Innocence. Harder edged than L’Amour de loin though it might be at times, Innocence still works with the (sometimes imperceptible) transformation of one soundspace to another,

For Innocence, Saariaho has worked with the writer Sofi Aksanen (dramaturgy and translation by Aleksi Barrière, says the programme booklet, but Andrew Mellor’s programme essay Speaking in Tongues perhaps is closer to the mark with the appellation of Barrière as ’guiding dramaturge’); the result is a decidedly multi-lingual tapestry. English is one part, but so is Swedish, Czech, German, and others, all interacting seamlessly, as if multilingualism in the listener is taken for granted. It actually works brilliantly, as it enables Saariaho to create a tapestry of stories, with the languages acting as semiotic ‘labels’, or signs. The scene is an International School, the plot centring around a school shooting that occurred a decade ago. The drama moves seamlessly between timelines, its fluidity enhanced and underlined by a revolving, two-storey set, brilliantly conceived by director Simon Stone and his set designer Chloe Lamford and spectacularly lit by James Farncombe.

In its examination of extreme emotional events and its use of a ‘servant’ character is crucial to the plot, Innocence has real parallels with Thomas Vinterberg’s film Festen (Celebration), not least as both carry, throughout, an underlying feeling of disquiet (there is also a son that is unwelcome in both), that events could erupt at any moment. Trauma is the keyword for both – here, seven figures (six students and one teacher) act in emotional and temporal counterpoint to the present-day wedding of the bridegroom Tuomas (Markus Nykänen) and bride (Lilian Farahani). The shooter in the slaughter was Tuomas’ brother (who was bullied by some of the survivors); Tuomas, his brother and Iris had conspired towards the shooting, but Tuomas and Iris pulled out, leaving the sole assailant to take full responsibility. This scenario stretches over five acts – an epilogue sees the survivors’ dreams for a better future, and an incredibly touching scene of Markéta asking her mother to let go. There is no interval (the opera lasts around one- and three-quarter hours) – rightly so. There is nothing to interrupt the seamless sense of claustrophobic concentration, so perfectly projected by the Covent Garden orchestra under the faultless direction of Susanna Mälkki.

The idea of the two-storey cube is itself claustrophobic in nature – two interrelated worlds, one past, one present, interact within a given space, within definite confines. The rest of the stage is black and bare, an external vacuum. On a musical level, the work’s opening in the orchestra is perhaps more angular than one might expect from Saariaho’s pen, with its use of piano and punctuating brass (not to mention some fiendishly angular trumpet lines, brilliantly done here) underpinned by what sounds like a contrabassoon. There is a slow plot unveiling that carries the always simmering opera through – yet in retrospect, the very opening seems to hold the whole opera in microcosm. Certainly, there is a pronounced part for solo standard bassoon that seems to initiate a timbral thread as this foregrounding returns later (when the father talks about how he taught his son to shoot ’like a man’, to take one example).

Saariaho herself explains the effect left by the end: ‘There are ways to continue living, after an event like this, not to forget, just to continue living. But perhaps those rays of sunshine are quite mild’ (quoted in Mellor’s note). The opera is an exploration of shadows – of shadows cast by this event, and the effects felt as a result. Jerónimo (Student Five), for example, cannot go to the theatre or the movies, as he cannot sit with his back to the door. Lily finds a strange solace in ‘the places where monsters lurked’ (‘Innan var platser där monstrenruvade. Nu är dom platserna där jag sover bäst’ – ‘Sometime before, in those places the monsters lurked. Now they are the places where I get the best sleep’). Anton cannot go to his classes, or to work. As the Czech waitress says, ’Nám zastovil čas’ (‘Our time has come to a standstill’).

There is another reference (one of many, I imagine), this time to Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia, which also takes a wedding and twists it into something altogether darker, a feeling that set designer Lamford describes as a ’base layer’ for the wedding.

The Waitress’ arrival is explained in an aria for that character, with Saariaho delimiting that musical space (it follows a tense dialogue between Mother- and Father-in-Law around whether Stela will find out the opera’s dark secret) by a sudden glacial, celesta-garlanded chord and off-stage chorus, with a low pedal underlining the core foreboding of the entire opera. ‘This morning I was told that one of the waitresses was ill’ starts the aria, against a string obbligato counterpoint. The aching lyricism remains dark. This role was searingly sung by Magdalena Kožena in the original Aix production; here it was Finnish-Swedish mezzo-soprano Jenny Carlstedt, proving every inch as compelling. The aria cedes to urgent Spanish conversation, then German text. It sounds dizzying, but actually in the opera house, makes perfect sense.

Vilma Jää’s Marketa (centre) with fellow students and Lucy Shelton’s Cecilia © Tristram Kenton

And while there are what might be construed as arias, the actual modes of melodic discourse are many, including timbrally different traditional Sami yoik singing, as well as herding calls. The inclusion of Vilma Jää as Student One (Markéta) is a stroke of genius as Jää is a specialist in Finno-Ugric folk music, and the characteristic, harsher sound of her voice cut through the drama like a knife. These were some of the most purely beautiful moments of the evening, the vocal sound like a call from some forgotten, primordial past.

Saariaho’s music can take on a hard, jagged edge, found in Jerònimo’s rapidly-delivered memories, superbly realised by Camilo Delgado Díaz). As in Aix, the part of the Mother-in -Law was taken by Sandrine Piau, in terrific voice, full of beauty and yet completely dramatically convincing (and stronger than I heard her in the Gstaad Die Zauberflöte with Rousset in August last year); she was ideally complemented by Christopher Purves as the Father-in-Law, characteristically strong of voice. Together, they were completely convincing. Balancing this couple is the Bridegroom and Bride, Markus Nykänen and Lilian Farahani respectively, both giving raw, visceral accounts of the emotional twists and turns (not to mention skewerings) their characters go through.

It is fair to say that every cast member was immersed in their parts, and the importance of their contribution to the whole. Lucy Shelton was a magnificent Teacher (Cecilia), whose recollections of the fateful day are so powerfully set by Saariaho, memorably using a Schoenbergian Sprechstimme (of which Shelton appears to be an expert).

Saariaho’s subject matter is absolutely of the moment; her language, too is contemporary, and utterly individual (one mark of a great composer, perhaps). Her opera Innocence is a masterpiece, and it is almost impossible to imagine a finer rendition than this, both scenically and musically. The orchestra was on stellar form, tackling the many demands with consummate professionalism and with knife-edge accuracy; the chorus, heard off-stage, was incredibly powerful.

How good it was to see an apparently full Royal Opera House for this performance, and for a contemporary opera in such a large theatre, making that quite an achievement. This is the music of our time at its most powerful – may it return soon.

Colin Clarke

Libretto – Sofi Oksanen
Dramaturg and Translator – Aleksi Barrière
Director – Simon Stone
Set designer – Chloe Lamford
Costume designer – Mel Page
Lighting designer – James Farncombe
Choreographer – Arco Renz
Chorus master – Genevieve Ellis

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) – Samuel Oram
Student five (Jerónimo) – Camilo Delgado Díaz
Student six (Alexia) – Marina Dumont

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