Festival d’Aix-En-Provence 2021 Review: Innocence

Saariaho’s Opera on Trauma is a Stunningly Complex Work

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

Postponed from last year, owing to COVID restrictions, Kaija Saariaho’s new opera “Innocence” finally received its world premiere at this year’s Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, and it did not disappoint.

The libretto, written by Sofi Oksanen, interweaves two narratives which relate to a school shooting. One focuses on the students and their teacher who were present at the time of the massacre. The time frame shifts fluidly between reflection and a visual presentation of the events of that day. The second is set in the present day at a wedding in which the family of the shooter is celebrating their innocent son’s marriage. But the heavy hand of fate intervenes, forcing the family to confront the events of the past when the waitress at the celebratory dinner recognizes them: her daughter was one of the victims killed by their other son. As the opera develops the two narratives merge seamlessly into a single strand, which take a number of surprising twists, raising questions about the guilt and innocence of all involved.

It is also a narrative which has embedded within it numerous themes, in which the complex nature of guilt, and how it affects even those distantly related to the incident, are central. It explores the process of mourning and the need for honesty in confronting trauma, and cleverly relates how self-deception, secrets and lies are used to redefine our relationship with the past.

The opera has 13 characters, but it is not dominated by a single figure. Rather it is constructed so the events can be seen from multiple perspectives, through the eyes of all those involved, even down to a student hiding in the toilet trying to protect themselves from the shooter, too scared to open the door to another student who was to become a victim; an act destined to create another level of trauma and guilt.

Saariaho’s Complex, Masterful Score

Saariaho has the ability to draw listeners into her soundscape, and so it is with “Innocence.” From the brooding darkness of the opening bars the audience finds itself being dragged into the unfolding nightmare. The work is scored for an orchestra of substantial size employing a wide range of instruments, allowing for a variety of orchestral sounds and textures, which Saariaho used to explore and support the drama, however, it rarely takes centerstage, that is left to the singers.

With 13 characters to write for, she decided to introduce a variety of forms of expression, ranging from spoken, semi-spoken and folk idiom to sprechgesang and lyric, in which certain voices were amplified. The characters at the wedding party were provided with traditional singing parts as per a normal opera, while the students and teacher were provided with other forms. The interplay of the voices presented in such different ways alongside the colorful orchestral accompaniment made for an engaging and absorbing experience, which importantly, worked exceptionally well in intensifying the drama. A further level of complexity was added by having the shooting take place in an international school, so that the libretto contained at least nine different languages, each with their own rhythms and accents, to which Saariaho marries her musical tapestry.

The London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Susanna Mälkki produced a fine reading of the score which captured its subtle instrumental details, and skillfully developed its colorful textures, while carefully exploring the interplay of orchestra and voices. It was certainly not a reading which insisted on being noticed, yet was successful in promoting the onstage drama.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under the direction of Lodewijk van der Ree produced a beguiling sound which moved between text and sound, and complemented the drama perfectly.

Stones’ Visually Gripping and Insightful Direction

Aided by scenographer Chloe Lamford and costume designer Mel Page, the director Simon Stone opted for a naturalistic presentation with a restaurant, kitchen, utility room, toilets, a stairwell, a study room and a classroom. Lamford created a large rotating cube incorporating two levels, with the wedding party on the lower level and the international school on the upper. It was an effective and imaginative staging which allowed the drama to move seamlessly without interruptions for set changes – which took place out of public sight while the cube rotated. As the narratives combined so the rooms within the cube altered so that by the end, the whole cube had become the school. Moreover, it was possible to present both narratives simultaneously; while a scene may be set in the restaurant, it was also possible to watch the students going about their business at school on the upper level.

In the program notes, Stone explained that his approach was focused on exploring the scars caused by the shooting, and the need for those involved to confront their trauma, “to reopen past wounds to help heal them.” To this end, he encouraged the singers and actors to present their disparate and deeply felt emotions with a raw and penetrating clarity, in which the confrontation scenes between the waitress and the father, and then with the mother stood out as being particularly well-crafted. This did not mean that Stone underplayed the actual bloody events themselves. On the contrary, the sheer terror of the students fleeing the gunman, and the dead bodies which were allowed to lie on the stage with blood splattered across the walls, made it very clear as to what was occurring and the horror it entailed.

The Wedding Party

Initially, the wedding party seemed to be a typical celebratory dinner, in which a little anxiety could be discerned; normal on such occasions. However, below the surface exists the deep trauma brought about by the shootings, one which the presence of the waitress forces into the open, resurrecting memories and guilt, which in turn precipitates the unraveling of lies, deceptions and self-deceptions.

Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kōzená was cast as the waitress. In what was a fiery performance she carefully crafted the deep pain and suffering experienced by her character. Yet, it was not a flat portrayal, but one in which she captured an array of nuanced emotions, ranging from anger, rising anxiety, delusion and denial, resentment and bitterness. Her singing was wonderfully moulded, full of sharp accents, dynamic shifts and colorful shadings.

Soprano Sandrine Piau created a compelling portrait of the mother-in-law, who had simply not faced up to the actions of her son, even wondering if it was too late to call him and invite him to the wedding reception, and accusing the waitress’ daughter of causing the her son’s actions. It was a finely honed performance, in which Piau subtly inflected the vocal line with emotional depth and anxious accents.

The father-in-law was a typical middle class father and husband who tried to do his best for his family. Yet, he is aware of why there are so few people at the wedding, aware of his wife’s delusions and the problems of not telling his daughter-in-law the truth. He was played by bass-baritone Tuomas Pursio, who produced a good singing performance in which he moulded the vocal line neatly to fit the character’s fairly calm personality, who when pushed was able to confront the truth of his own role in the tragedy.

The groom played by tenor Markus Nykänen produced an excellent performance. His character undergoes a significant change over the course of the wedding reception. Calm and happy at the beginning, distraught and hollowed out by the end. He is not the innocent everybody believes him to be! His singing displayed a high degree of expressivity and emotional honesty which allowed him to successfully develop his character.

The innocent bride was played by soprano Lilian Farahani. This was supposed to be her happy day, the day she had found the family she longed for, having spent her childhood as an orphan growing up in Romania. She knew nothing about the family secret, until the waitress’ intervention. Farahani’s bright youthful voice was perfectly suited to the bride’s joyful demeanor. Even when confronted with the family’s secret, she remained supportive. Only when a further more devastating secret was revealed does her world finally collapse.

The Priest was played bass-baritone Jukka Rasilainen. He sang with precision, but was too underpowered to be completely effective.

The International School

The context of an international school added an extra dimension to the shooting, with the students coming from all parts of the world. They are the primary victims of shooter’s frenzied attack, but they also carry part of the guilt, for as the narrative unfolds it becomes clear that they had banded together to bully and humiliate him.

Soprano Lucy Shelton was the teacher who witnessed the unfolding events and acts as a narrator, relaying her impressions and her own sense of guilt to the audience. She made a good impression, presenting her lines in a way which was similar to sprechgesang, which worked well and added to the vocal textures of the work.

Markéta is the waitress’ daughter and one of the shooter’s victims. She is a carefully drawn figure; excellent at her studies, very studious, good at writing songs, maybe a little bit of a loner, but not unpopular. Vilma Jää, a Finnish folksinger-songwriter played the part. She possesses a high, flexible soprano, which she used to create the most remarkable lines through the interpolation of herding calls once used by the shepherds of Karelia, which occasionally gave her voice an almost disembodied sound. At the final curtain, she received loud applause, such was the quality and impact of her vocal skills.

Soprano Beate Mordal performed well as Lilly. She was the ring leader in the bullying incident and eventually slaughtered by the shooter.

Julie Hega playing the spoken part of Student 3 sympathizes with shooter after his humiliation, and planned the killings with him. It was a substantial role which displayed her ability to develop a truly believable and ultimately confused character.

Simon Kluth, Camilo Delgardo Diaz and Marina Dumont also impressed in smaller acting roles, in which their fear during the shooting, and the depth of their trauma were convincingly essayed.

Ultimately, this was not a work about a school shooting; it could have been about any traumatic event. This was about the consequences: the guilt, the self-deception, the lies and about coming to terms with what had happened, about confronting the past and trying to carve out future lives. The fact that the work has such a tense and strong narrative as a backdrop meant it is also a gripping piece of theatre.

Without doubt, “Innocence” is a painful work to watch for there is a lot of pain on view; lives are lost and survivors’ lives are destroyed, as they are pushed to their emotional limits. Yet in the epilogue the surviving students talk about their futures with optimism, and Markéta, the dead daughter of the waitress, encourages her mother to stop dwelling on the past, to stop buying her her favorite apples and birthday presents, and to move on.

Over the coming seasons, “Innocence” is scheduled for performances at Covent Garden, Amsterdam, Helsinki, San Francisco and the New York Met. It is a production not to be missed.


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