Kaija Saariaho’s grand yet restrained new opera about a tragedy and its reverberations is the most powerful work of her five-decade career.
AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — “Innocence,” the new opera by Kaija Saariaho, begins in soft, somber gloom. A shadowy mist of cymbal rises off long, sepulchral tones down in the basses and contrabassoon, before a keening fragment of bassoon pierces the quiet with melancholy song.
It’s just a few seconds of music, but a mood has been established — comprehensively, unforgettably, yet subtly. Before we know the plot of “Innocence,” we feel it: Something dark and deep has happened, from which memory vibrates into an uncertain future, etched with mourning.
We keep feeling it over the hundred minutes that follow, as we come to know intimately a tragedy and its reverberations. Grand yet restrained, a thriller that is also a meditation, “Innocence” is the most powerful work Saariaho has written in a career now in its fifth decade.
Appearing through July 12 here at the Aix-en-Provence Festival (and streaming on arte.tv on Saturday) after its planned debut in 2020 was canceled, it would be the premiere of the year even in a normal season — even if its audience were not so hungry for real, big, important, live opera after so many months largely without. It deserves to travel far beyond an already global itinerary: Helsinki, Amsterdam, London, San Francisco, the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
This is undoubtedly the work of a mature master, in such full command of her resources that she can focus simply on telling a story and illuminating characters. Unlike so many contemporary operas, “Innocence” — featuring the mighty London Symphony Orchestra, conducted with sensitivity and control by Susanna Malkki — doesn’t feel like a sung play with a more or less disconnected, elaborately self-regarding orchestral soundtrack.
With a libretto by the Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen, and translation work on more than a half-dozen languages by Aleksi Barrière, “Innocence” is set in 21st-century Helsinki, where there has been a deadly shooting at an international school. The action continually shifts back and forth between a recollection of the disaster, by six students and a teacher who went through it, and a wedding party happening 10 years later.
There is ample operatic precedent for an innocent young woman guided blindly by her lover into a world of violence and deception: Think of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” and Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande.” “Innocence” recalls those, as well as the ferocious economy of Berg’s “Wozzeck” and Strauss’s “Elektra” in its relatively modest, intermissionless length.
But “Innocence” is very much of our time, and — in its play of multiple languages and registers of speaking and singing — very much itself. Saariaho gave it the working title “Fresco”; it was inspired, she has said, by “The Last Supper,” from which she derived the size of the cast (13 soloists) and the piece’s broader questions of culpability and the linked yet separate experiences of people who have shared a trauma.
Members of the wedding party sing: the groom, a tenor, in boisterous exhortations; the bride, a soprano, with sweet lyricism. A priest, the only friend the family has left, murmurs ominously about the faith he has lost.
The surviving students and teacher, on the other hand, speak — though in precise rhythms artfully tailored to their respective languages of Czech, Swedish, French, German, Spanish, Greek and English. The waitress’s daughter, Marketa (a memorably rapt Vilma Jaa), appears as a kind of phantom, singing in the eerily plain style of Finnish folk music. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir chants offstage, a hint of a world beyond the fevered hothouse of the plot. All these disparate vocal worlds are linked by the orchestra, which wraps around the singers lightly and sleekly — never explicitly underlining them, never competing.
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