The new opera, which anchored the Aix-en-Provence Festival, is a monumental cry against gun violence.
Kaija Saariaho’s opera “Innocence,” which had its première at the Aix-en-Provence Festival on July 3rd, contains one of the most unnerving scenes I’ve witnessed at a theatre. About forty minutes into the piece, in a scene marked “IT,” the chorus chants the phrase “When it happened” in staggered rhythm, with low piano and double-basses punching up each syllable. A frame drum raps out sixteenth notes in rapid-fire bursts, and two trumpets let loose a series of “rips”—quick, shrieking upward glissandos. Then the orchestral mayhem cuts off abruptly; sopranos oscillate queasily between the notes A-flat and G; and the brutal rhythm resumes in the percussion. The terror is made explicit onstage, as a high-school student stumbles through a door, his arms covered in blood. A shooter, a fellow-student, is laying siege to a Finnish international school. Opera, which has been making art from death for more than four centuries, is recording a new kind of horror.
The shock of the moment is redoubled by the fact that the audience is only just discovering what the opera is really about. At the beginning, a strangely cheerless wedding reception is in progress, at a restaurant in Finland. The groom’s brother was involved in an unnamed tragedy ten years in the past; the bride, an immigrant from Romania, knows nothing of that history. A waitress is sickened upon learning which family has hired her for a wedding: her daughter died in the tragedy in question. Evasive locutions of politeness and shame conceal the specifics of what happened until performers begin enacting the memories of the survivors.
The libretto is by the Finnish-Estonian novelist Sofi Oksanen, who knows how to play on our expectations and then short-circuit them. The title is ironic: the characters refuse to arrange themselves into a simplistic array of heroes and villains. The killer is never heard from, though there are glimpses of him as a bullied kid. The aftermath is chaotic: media sensationalism and political doublespeak have done their work. The groom confesses that he rejoices at the news of new shootings, because they confirm that “monsters are bred in other families, too.” A teacher subjects her students’ papers to paranoid analysis, searching for signs of mental instability: “I reported any weird syntax in their essays, any change in their handwriting, until I understood I wasn’t fit for teaching anymore.”
The psychological-thriller components of “Innocence” mark a change for Saariaho, who rose to fame by employing modernist and avant-garde techniques to summon otherworldly, dreamlike spheres. Her best-known score is the opera “L’Amour de Loin,” which premièred in Salzburg in 2000 and arrived at the Met in 2016; it gorgeously evokes the rarefied longings of the twelfth-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel. Saariaho’s second opera, “Adriana Mater” (2006), made a turn toward contemporary reality, telling of a woman raped in time of war, but its approach was more meditative and abstract. “Innocence,” which Saariaho completed in 2018, has a seething rawness. It’s as if the turmoil of recent years had prompted her to abandon aesthetic distance and enter the melee of the real.
Saariaho has said in an interview that she modelled “Innocence” on two great Expressionist shockers of the early twentieth century, “Elektra” and “Wozzeck.” Like those operas, “Innocence” lasts less than two hours, its five acts and twenty-five scenes unfolding without interruption. The orchestral prologue introduces familiar elements of Saariaho’s sound world: solo woodwind and brass lines that twirl about or trill in place; eerie clockwork ostinatos on celesta and harp; grandly groaning textures for full ensemble. Sharper-edged, more propulsive patterns soon break in, but they seldom establish a steady forward motion. The atmosphere is at once sensual and unsettled—dread in vivid colors.
Generational and demographic divides in the opera’s community are evident in a controlled squabble of vocal styles. The members of the wedding party—labelled Bride, Groom, Mother-in-Law, Father-in-Law, Priest, and Waitress—are conventional singing parts. Five survivors of the shooting are portrayed by actors or singing actors, who speak, variously, in Swedish, French, Spanish, German, and Greek. An English teacher chants her lines in Sprechstimme—the half-spoken, half-sung manner associated with Schoenberg’s vocal works. Markéta, the shooting victim mourned by her waitress mother, makes ghostly visitations, her folkish, singsong melodies slicing through the prevailing density of Saariaho’s harmonic textures.
Vt veel: The New Yorker