Innocence at the Aix Festival

This was the world premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s new opera that will come soon to Helsinki, Amsterdam, London, New New York and San Francisco, its co-commissioners.

Finland born composer Saariaho matured musically at Paris’ IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination Acoustics/Music). She has established herself as the most visible successor to the great names of the French timbre based tradition (Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen). Innocence is in fact her third opera. 

More specifically Saariaho is considered a post-spectralist, meaning that her methods of musical organization are based largely on sonic frequency relationships (rather than tonal centers or serial repetitions). Suffice to say that her music explodes in carefully constructed, colorful soundscapes that are spectacularly beautiful. 

Mme. Saariaho finds herself in the rare position to be able to envision an opera requiring an 80 player symphony orchestra and a sizable offstage chorus. These numbers do not include the personnel and equipment to electronically manipulate their sounds as well as the voices of thirteen soloists. Innocence is a text driven opera, the voices always in high relief, sometimes spoken, sometimes chanted by multi-discipline artists. When the actors were singers they intoned operatically in sprechstimme or in fully voiced arias and ensembles. Except in many easily recognizable instances the electronic manipulation was seamlessly integrated into the unified timbre that unified the sound world of the opera.

Upper left: Teacher, standing Markéta,students; lower left: Waitress

The opera is sung in English, though its parallel story, a secondary school massacre, is set in an international school. Thus there are six other languages present in the opera as the schools students relive their ancient tragedy. At the same time the action is the wedding celebration of a young Finn to a Romanian girl whom he met vacationing in Bucharest, adding that language as well. The libretto was constructed in Finnish by Sofi Oksanen, a Finnish/Estonian novelist and then made into this multi-lingual version by D’Alesksi Barrière. It tells thirteen separate stories, the unifying thread is the innocence or guilt each character feels, and we, in turn, understand in the unfolding action of the wedding celebration.

The complex libretto is the bones of the Kaija Saariaho opera, and the staging, entrusted to Simon Stone, is its flesh. Saariaho’s score is the soul of the opera, and it was perceived to be immense by the tumultuous reaction of the Aix audience. The voices of the students tell of their post-traumatic stress in strictly measured, always well amplified speech. There are as well specters of murdered students who describe the violence of their deaths, now ten years in the past. Particularly there is the greatly altered, truly spectral voice of Markéta, murdered daughter of a waitress at the wedding (see lead photo), in tortured, sung and chanted lines sometimes in extreme registers. She is the original sin, instilling the collectives guilts that obsess the students and wedding party, and finally involve all of us in guilt and innocence.

Upper floor: Bride and bridegroom; Lower floor: Mother and Father of the groom

The adults — the waitress, the teacher, the priest, the groom and his fiancé, the mother and father — operatically intone their recitatives and arias — each have an extended monologue or actual aria. Saariaho creates vocal lines that are coherent, though flowing in lines and intervals specific to her style. The difficulty of execution is quite obvious.

It is the text that gives the opera its structure and demands our attention. The orchestra is a sound continuum underlying the text in spectral tones, in gorgeous microtone slabs and slides of seemingly indeterminate meaning, and this is, perhaps, the intention of its participation (a queasy relationship of guilt and innocence). Interestingly the orchestral sound blocks do provide sufficient context that the singers exist within a specified pitch realm.

Though English was the language of the adults, and the words well projected, the students stories were in myriad languages. Thus we became entrapped by the supertitles. We quickly perceived there were to be thirteen stories and that the wedding celebration would end in disaster. It was like reading a tabloid newspaper page by page.

Stage director Simon Stone, like in his Salzburg Medée, created a docudrama of human interest stories. It was not realism (a version of what an artists deems as real), it was journalistically real. The hidden musical mysteries of Mme. Saariaho’s musical spectralism succumbed to a persistent, present reality.

The set was a revolving two level structure divided into rooms, of course a kitchen as well as a toilet room were included. As the structure turned rooms became hidden, allowing them to be repurposed (from a banquet hall to a school room for example), this effected by a small army of stagehands who were included in the bows.

In the end we questioned our own reactions, both to the sensational tales of the opera and to its discussion of innocence. We also questioned our personal reactions and perspectives to the characters and their need to sustain innocence in their guilt. And we questioned the quite wonderful art of famed composer Saariaho and her realizer, stage director Simon Stone, the creator of brilliant settings for the Aix Tristan, the Salzburg Lear and the Paris Traviata. Superb artists both whose art was overtaken by the realities of everyday life. Of which school shootings have become an ordinary occurrence.

Michael Milenski

Waitress: Magdalaena Kožená; Mother in Law: Sandrine Plau; Father in Law: Thomas Pursio; Bride: Lilian Farahani; Groom: Markus Nykänen; Priest: Jukka Rasilainen; Teacher: Lucy Shelton; Markéta: Vilma Jää; Lilly: Beate Mordal; Student 3: Julie Hege; Student 4: Simon Kluth; Jerónimo: Camilo Delgado Diaz; Student 6: Marina Dumont. London Symphony Orchestra, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Conductor: Susanna Mälkki; Mise en Scene: Simon Stone; Scenery: Chloe Lamford; Costumes: Mel Page; Lighting: James Farncombe; Choreography: Arco Renz. Grand Théâtre de Provence. Aix-en-Provence, July 10, 2021.