Innocence, Kaija Saariaho’s masterpiece, packs a wallop in its U.S. premiere in San Francisco

United StatesUnited States Saariaho, Innocence: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera / Clément Mao-Takacs (conductor). War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 1.6.2024. (HS)

Rotating set for a wedding venue and the scene of a school shooting © Corey Weaver/SFO

In its American premiere, Kaija Saariaho’s ultimate opera, Innocence, proved to be the modern masterpiece that it has been called in previous mountings of Simon Stone’s production in Europe. Even the changes in cast and conductor since the 2021 debut in Aix-en-Provence have not dimmed its power. Saariaho, who died a year ago, harnessed her unique musical language for a story that is equal parts psychological thriller and thoughtful commentary on contemporary social woes.

Conductor Clément Mao-Takacs, who led the performances in Helsinki last year, drew superbly atmospheric playing from the orchestra in San Francisco. The dark-hued overture lumbered with evocative growls and shimmered with halos of ethereal sound in a perfect preview of the powerful emotional shifts that kept a full audience on the edge of their seats for 105 minutes of continuous music. Saariaho’s score created unique instrumental combinations for each of the thirteen singing roles. With consummate command of tone, the music functions, Wagner-like, as both emotional descriptor and commentator, all the while creating unique textures and harmonies.

When melodies emerge, they can stun with their beauty or stab with pain. The vocal writing ranges from traditional opera Fachs to a few moments of spoken dialogue and one character with an ear-awakening Finnish folk style.

The story and its characters, created by Finnish novelist and playwright Sofi Oksanen and wrangled into a taut libretto by Oksanen and dramaturg Aleksi Barrière (Saariaho’s son), benefit from this level of specificity. A wedding is under way in a small Helsinki restaurant. The bride, a recent immigrant from Romania, is being welcomed into a family with a dark secret she does not yet know: the bridegroom’s brother killed eleven people in a mass shooting at an international high school ten years earlier. In a prologue, student survivors have revealed how the trauma has devastated their lives, and over the course of the opera these timelines play out, overlapping, in a rotating set.

A last-minute replacement waitress at the wedding recognizes the family as the shooter’s. In bits and pieces, secrets are revealed. As it turns out, no one is completely innocent.

Tereza, the waitress, is the pivotal role. Ruxandra Donose and her rich mezzo-soprano assayed it for the first time here, portraying a character with ever-rising anxiety. In two other major role debuts, Rod Gilfry as Henrik, the father of the groom, stood out for a focused baritone and clarity of diction that defined his character. As Patricia, soprano Claire de Sévigné painted a picture of a woman desperate to ignore the family’s shame. Scenes among those three bared the heart of the psychological story.

Most of the singers portraying students, holdovers from previous casts, revealed heart-gripping present-day effects of the trauma and enacted both the shooting and another key element, bullying. The audience never sees a death, only the results, a choice that underlines a focus on everyone’s ongoing struggle, even after a decade, to get on with their lives.

Veteran soprano Lucy Shelton, a specialist in contemporary opera, delivered the essence of that struggle in an over-the-top, Wozzeck-like sprechstimme that added up to a detailed cry of despair: to her, teaching could never matter as much again. Angular chords in the orchestra accompaniment felt like jolts to the heart.

Vilma Jää as the ghost of Markéta © Corey Weaver/SFO

The most arresting voice in the cast, and the discovery of the evening for me, was Vilma Jää, the 29-year-old Finnish pop singer. Her ecstatic vocal range, hauntingly distinctive timbre and roots in Finno-Ugric folk music played against a tinkling celesta and tuned percussion to create an angelic aura to Markéta (Tereza’s daughter). Her tour-de-force pays dividends, as she wanders through scenes and interacts at key points with her mother. We learn that the mother still buys the apples her daughter liked, only to discard them, and Markéta was not the angel her mother thought. At the end, orchestral music tapers down to find rest on notes octaves apart with matter-of-fact simplicity. In the last lines of the opera, Markéta asks her mother to stop buying apples and to let her go.

Among the surviving students, French-Cameroonian vocalist Julie Hega made a strong impression as Iris, a moody, enigmatic friend of both the shooter and Tuomas.

Revival director Louise Bakker had the advantage of most of the cast from 2023 runs at Covent Garden and Dutch National Opera, including tenor Miles Mykkanen as the bridegroom Tuomas and soprano Lilian Farahani as the bride Stela, both in fine voice here. Veteran Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, in a role debut, brought a rustic bluffness to the Priest (tellingly, the only member of the wedding party not family, but also among those not exactly innocent).

Above all, Saariaho’s extraordinary score, every scene painstakingly timed out to keep the momentum, created distinct orchestral sounds for each character and emotion. It all segued seamlessly. As expected for an international school, the libretto employed nine different languages, mainly English and Finnish but also Romanian, Czech, German, Greek, Spanish, Swedish and French, each flavoring the music that accompanied the words.

Another factor in the opera’s impact, at least for an American audience, is a distressing familiarity with gun violence and school shootings. We tend of think of Europe as being free of this societal plague, but Finland has endured its own rash of school shootings in this century. The most recent, earlier this year at a school near Helsinki, officially involved bullying. Could this opera be more relevant?

Harvey Steiman

[Earlier Seen and Heard International reviews: Aix-en-Provence, Helsinki, London]

Libretto – Sofi Oksanen
Dramaturg and Translator – Aleksi Barrière
Director – Simon Stone
Revival Director – Louise Bakker
Sets – Chloe Lamford
Costumes – Mel Page
Lighting – James Farncombe
Choreographer – Arco Renz
Sound and Mixing engineer – Timo Kurkikangas
Chorus director – John Keene

The Waitress (Tereza) – Ruxandra Donose
The Bride (Stela) – Lilian Farahani
The Bridegroom (Tuomas) – Miles Mykkanen
The Father-in-Law (Henrik) – Rod Gilfry
The Mother-in-Law (Patricia) – Claire de Sévigné
The Teacher (Cecilia) – Lucy Shelton
The Priest – Kristinn Sigmundsson
Student 1 (Markéta) – Vilma Jää
Student 2 (Lilly) – Beate Mordal
Student 3 (Iris) – Julie Hega
Student 4 (Anton) – Rowan Kievits
Student 5 (Jerónimo) – Camilo Delgado Díaz
Student 6 (Alexia) – Marina Dumont
Actors – Oksana Barrios, Jordan Covington, Victoria Fong, Sam Hannum, Jalen Justice,
Rachael Richman, Brian Soutner, Kevin Walton

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