InnocenceThe opera-thriller by Kaija Saariaho

Concerts 10.07.2021

Innocence, the fifth opera by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, is a real thriller that keeps the suspense going right to the end.

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, until 12 July.

The opera in five acts and twenty-five scenes without an intermission (1 hour and 40 minutes of music) is based on the original Finnish libretto that the composer commissioned from the Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen. It features thirteen characters and intersects two levels of narration that gradually become intertwined: a family wedding banquet in Helsinki in the 2000s where the waitress Teresa has been hired as an extra, and the context of a tragedy, a high school shooting that took place ten years ago at an international high school where Teresa's daughter Marketa was killed.
Kaija Saariaho says she had in mind Leonardo da Vinci's painting The Last Supper, where Christ surrounded by his twelve apostles at the Last Supper scrutinises the faces of each of them to find the culprit. The theme is central - 'everyone is guilty, always, in their own way' - in Innocence, an opera that also denounces the violence in our societies. The subject, which has been portrayed more than once on the screen (Gus van Sant's Elephant springs to mind), has never before been treated on an operatic stage. 

The composer's desire to include several languages in the libretto, the original Finnish and eight other languages (English, French, German, Romanian, Greek, Spanish, Czech and Swedish), is also unprecedented. This luminous idea, as much symbolic as sonorous, called for the collaboration of the translator and dramaturge Aleksi Barrière , who produced the multilingual version of the libretto, prompting Kaija Saariaho to include actors in her cast for the first time, often singers as well, their interventions all being scrupulously noted in the score. Each of them expresses himself in his native language and in various ways, from theatrical speech to rhythmic speech (the Pupils), from Sprechgesang (The Teacher) to Finnish folk song (Markéta, Pupil 1). After Only the sound remains, the opera given in 2017 at the Opéra Garnier, where she introduced the Kantele (a kind of Finnish zither), Kaija Saariaho continues her investigation into the folk music of her country by calling on a young Finnish artist, Vilma Jää, a student in the Helsinki traditional music department: "I have always wanted to stage a multilingual show," says Australian Simon Stone, who is in charge of the set, using two very effective stage strategies with his set designer Cloe Lamford: the revolving stage, which ensures the fluidity of the transition between the festivities of the wedding and the school context of the high school; the two-storey set, which plays on the visual and temporal simultaneity of the two "different realities": a wedding meal (and the adjoining kitchen) where the characters have a singing part, mostly in English, and a classroom upstairs where other languages are spoken in a different rhythm 

This is what the superb orchestral prelude, shrouded in mystery, concentrates in a few minutes, opening and progressively animating the space, from the creeping sonority of the contrabassoon to the luminous perspectives of a resonant percussion that is omnipresent in the composer's refined orchestration. A melodic line with a Leitmotiv-like quality emerges in the bassoon, very insinuating, which will obstinately haunt the entire score. The almost Scriabinian figures of the oboe, trumpet, violin and piccolo, which spring from the orchestra, will come back many times to underline the vocal line during the opera. Each character is assigned an instrumental colour and a singular motif, and it is worth noting the dramaturgical function of the percussion: the scintillating register of the bells already mentioned and the importance of the drums (snare drum and cymbal) in the very incisive rhythmic parts where the spoken voices are inserted and lightly treated by the electronics. The English version of L'Enseignante, on the other hand, is set in long time, with the distant voices of the choir and the theatrical inflections of the Sprechgesang.  

To the different temporal strata of song and speech is added that of the invisible choir (the magnificent Estonian Chamber Choir), amplified and spatialised voices that emerge from the depths and modify the space, linking one world to another as the scenes follow one another at an almost cinematographic pace.
The conductor Susanna Mälkki is the third Finnish lady involved in this visionary "fresco", an exemplary master builder of the evening, facing the London Symphony Orchestra, which does not disappoint.

The cast of voices is nothing short of exceptional, also international and tailor-made, one might say, with Magdalena Kožená (The Waitress) singing in Czech and Jukka Rasilainen (The Pastor) and Markus Nykänen (The Groom) conversing in Finnish when their words become more intimate and above all more revealing. Sandrine Piau is a mother-in-law with a clear and well-projected voice; the bass-baritone Tuomas Pursio (the father-in-law) deploys a supple voice with very expressive colours in contrast to the Pastor's voice, which is more firmly anchored in his bass register. The tenor Markus Nykänen (The Groom), alongside his dashing wife (soprano Lilian Farahani), reveals a voice of impeccable technique that opens up to the character's final confessions. Between revolt and pain, the mezzo Magdalena Kožená superbly embodies her role as a broken mother, a victim but also responsible, if not also guilty, in the eyes of society.

Vilma Jää (Markéta, the missing girl) is inevitably featured alongside her former classmates, all of whom are amazing (Beate Modal, Julie Hega, Simon Kluth, Camilo Delgado Diaz and Marina Dumont), and fascinates us with each of her appearances: the voice of an angel of incredible emotional power, whose strange beauty of tone and vocal flashes disconnect us from reality. In the epilogue, she brings "the small consoling light" to this tragedy that crushes its victims and in which everyone identifies. 

Crossing languages, styles and even genres, Kaija Saariaho seems to be entering a new stage in her compositional work with Innocence. Yet this fifth opera, the fruit of a fertile collaboration between librettist and playwright, reactivates, with even more talent, the "crossing of borders" that the composer's entire career so brilliantly illustrates. 

Michèle Tosi

Innocence, opera in five acts, composed by Kaija Saariaho to a libretto by Sofi Oksanen; translation and dramaturgy, Aleksi Barrière; direction Simon Stone; stage design, Chloe Lamford; costumes, Mel Page; lighting James Farncombe; choreography, Arco Renz. Magdalena Kožená, mezzo-soprano, The Waitress; Sandrine Piau, soprano, The Stepmother; Tuomas Pursio, bass-baritone, The Father-in-law; Markus Nykänen, tenor, The Groom; Lilian Farahani, soprano, The Bride; Jukka Rasilainen, bass-baritone, The Priest; Lucy Shelton, soprano, The Teacher; Vilma Jää, folk singer, Pupil 1 (Markéta); Beate Mordal, soprano, Pupil 2 (Lilly); Julie Hega, multidisciplinary artist, Pupil 3; Simon Kluth, multidisciplinary artist, Pupil 4; Camille Delgado Diaz, tenor, Pupil 5 (Jerónimo); Marina Dumont, actress, Pupil 6. Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; London Symphony Orchestra; conductor Susanna Mälkki. 

Photos © jean-louis Fernandez


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