London Symphony Orchestra
Librettist: Sofi Oksanen/Aleksi Barrière
Conductor: Susanna Mälkki
Producer/Director: Simon Stone
Waitress: Magdalena Kožená
Mother-in-Law: Sandrine Piau
Father-in-Law: Tuomas Pursio
Bride: Lilian Farahani
Groom: Markus Nykänen
Priest: Jukka Rasilainen
Teacher: Lucy Shelton
Markéta: Vilma Jää
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Since my first, long-overdue experience of Aix-en-Provence’s Festival international d’art lyrique was the oldest opera on this year’s program with Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, I figured that my second one might as well be the most recent opera on this year’s program, so recent in fact that it had its world première just one week before the performance I would attend, mine being technically the troisième of Kaija Saariaho’s much anticipated Innocence.
I had been intrigued by her L’amour de loin when I saw at the Met back in 2016, and I consequently was very curious to see what the arguably most exciting contemporary opera composer has come up with lately. Truth be told, I was almost grateful for the pandemic since it had postponed the première of Innocence by a year, just in time for me to be in Aix to check it out.
Even better, after having enjoyed two very different and equally rewarding outdoors performances so far this summer, I have to admit that I was shamelessly relishing the modern comfort of the deliciously plush seats and perfectly calibrated A/C of Aix’s Grand Théâtre de Provence, where I happily plopped myself down between a young Asian woman and an elderly German couple at the totally civilized time of 8:00 PM last Saturday evening.
I knew very little about Innocence before committing to it, except that it was inspired by the 13 characters of The Last Supper, that its duration would be about 110 blissfully uninterrupted minutes, and that it would be sung and spoken in English, Finnish, Czech, Romanian, French, Swedish, German, Spanish and Greek, which of course did not fail to tickle the linguist in me. Once in the auditorium, there was no turning back as the compact Rubik’s Cube-like décor and the ominously dark first notes set the tone for a riveting evening.
Although her first appearance was rather inconspicuous, there was soon little doubt that superb Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená would be the link between the joyful wedding and the tragic shooting that were happening 10 years apart in the expertly organized vignettes. And we could have hardly wished for a better one: She carried her visceral pain with painful dignity and thrilling vocal power.
French soprano Sandrine Piau may be a Baroque specialist, but on Saturday night she brilliantly demonstrated that she’s just as comfortable with challenging contemporary music as the mother of the groom who just can’t let go of the past no matter how much denial she’s desperately trying to be in.
Her husband did not fare much better in terms of dealing with upsetting ghosts and an uncertain future, and this was made perfectly clear by stern Finnish bass-baritone Tuomas Pursio, who was nevertheless still trying and failing to bring some normalcy into a situation that was anything but.
Irano-Dutch soprano Lilian Farahani was achingly efficient as the young bride merrily celebrating her new life and her new family before the harsh truth brutally and irrevocably crushes her happy ending.
As for her new husband, baby-faced but powerful-voiced Finnish tenor Markus Nykänen confidently went from unabashedly looking forward to the future to torn by unbearable guilt and despair.
Germano-Finnish bass-baritone Jukka Rasilainen was terrific as the heart-breaking priest who had lost his faith, but nevertheless remained the only friend and significant support of the ill-fated family.
American soprano Lucy Shelton was deeply moving as the teacher who did not realize what was going on until it was too late, and subsequently had to renounce teaching out of excruciating guilt.
The six young artists impersonating the international students all did an excellent job, whether they were acting, speaking or singing, but a special mention has to be made of young Czech folk singer Vilma Jää who, with her crystalline voice and otherworldly presence, was a truly outstanding Markéta.
Although they were not visible, the members of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir provided a subtle touch of hauntingness to the performance.
The homogenous cast was in fine form indeed, but the whole enterprise would not have succeeded so well if they had not benefitted from really ingenious staging. As it was, the various rooms distributed on the two levels of the continuously rotating, labyrinthic set allowed for seamless transitioning of past and present scenes as time inexorably went on. While such a concept could have easily brought confusion, in this case it was cleverly putting all the pieces of the puzzle together one by one like clockwork.
By converting and emptying the various spaces until only a few symbolic touches remained (empty walls, dispersed corpses, blood stains), the Australian director Simon Stone helped the story steadily progress from the boisterous wedding party to the timidly hopeful conclusion, peppering it with memorable scenes such as Markéta’s first eerie appearance to her mother, or the quiet horror of the school shooting slowly unfolding with neither gun shots nor shooter, or the many consequence-heavy confrontations that left nobody intact.
The ambitious score was both predictable and surprising in its boldly unusual and highly successful combination of textures, harmonies and colors that were conveyed by a wide range of techniques. Saariaho’s ever-inquisitive mind had obviously been at work again, and the result was fascinating. Throughout the evening, the story peeled off its many different layers, the characters revealed uncomfortable truths, and universal questions about innocence and guilt were raised.
A staunch contemporary music advocate, and also Saariaho’s long-time partner in wild adventures, prominent Finnish maestra Susanna Mälkki led the reliably fabulous London Symphony Orchestra in a performance that was as pointedly multi-faceted and vividly human as the work itself. It can't have been an easy feat to keep the remarkably complex, dense-in-its-transparency music going for almost two hours, but they handled it like the true pros they are.
The ovation was deservedly long and loud, and went up a few notches when pretty much everybody got up to greet a frail but smiling Kaija Saariaho as she was wheeled on the stage by Vilma Jää. By all accounts, she had done it again.