Even though it is a love story culminating in a marriage that begins this tale, Innocence is not a love story; not, that is, in the traditional operatic sense of boy meets girl. There is love pulsing in this opera but it is love of varied kinds: a mother’s for her daughter’s; a man’s for his wife’s; a priest’s for his faith; a girl’s for a boy’s and a brother’s for his brother’s. Though themes and meanings are rocked and displaced, one thing remains steadfast: love here is a dangerous thing.
On the surface level, the novel-ness of this opera is its very modern theme: a school shooting. But beyond that and before that is the music. Like The Rites of Spring, it has the courage to be both discordant and melodic. With a huge range of instruments called into play, it is the music which, before the curtain rises, sets the scene; it’s what an Agatha Christie movie score would sound like if John Williams did opera.
Simon Stone directs operatically – with a killer instinct for drama – and the bodies on the stage do what bodies in dance, when it is good, do. They enrapt us, making us aware of their double sword: their power and their vulnerability. Conductor Susanna Malkki’s ease of control is breath-taking.
Up rolls the curtain to a Hopper-esque building that cries of isolation. Bare, boxed, Scandi; what to our eyes looks like 1970s socialist realism. The rooms each house different scenes of the story: a wedding hall, a kitchen, an international school, a balcony, a hotel room, perhaps. In each of these spaces part of the puzzle is enacted: why did a boy shoot his class-fellow and by this act, break two families: the family of the dead girl, and his own.
The opera begins with a wedding scene. But this is no Figaro. There is no boundless joy. What sex there is is not illict; it is sanctioned but still takes place in a dark corner and is, in this way, made small. At the wedding banquet, the bride and groom and his parents each take turns to voice how lucky they are to have found each other. As they speak of luck, and futures hoped for, imagined, the music, spiralling into unknown borders, tells another story. And as it does so the image behind the image we have before us begins to come unstuck. Another table. Another celebration, but in that older picture one of the thirteen has a secret which the Christ alone knows; he’ll accept the betrayal as a kiss. Here, too, then betrayal. But to what? To a family? To an idea of goodness? To a memory? The words say one thing; the music, another. It is the music we need to heed.
And at the side, on the outskirts of the banquet, stands a waitress, who has to serve the family whose son killed her daughter. She is the proverbial Hitchcock time-bomb under the table: When will she explode? When will she spill the beans, make the blessed family – if there is any justice, though she doesn’t, she says, believe in justice – the cursed family they should be.
As we move from episodic scene to non-linear scene, we’re looking at a fresco; we are Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. Nothing fits till it fits. And then it’s bang bang. Each revelation displacing the idea that we can, for certain, know anything.
Though there is no break, the performance running straight for two hours, at the moment which seems like the end of the first half, the singers and the musical actors huddle close, looking the audience in the eye, and for once, speak the same words. But a spotlight moment in the hands of a grand artist is not to be trusted, never ever.
Composer Kaija Saariaho artistry is so confident that she teases us in. The scale of her composition, the listening posts she makes of us, the flitting gaze her structure imposes upon us, means that we are not invested in a single person narrative. Listen, she seems to say. Everything, everyone is important. Attentiveness should be rewarded. But this is a post-Christian world and there is no longer One Truth.
It’s not just the characters in this production who lie. And it’s not only to others that they lie; they have a facility to lie to themselves as well. The bridegroom fears his new wife finding out the truth about his brother- that he was a shooter. It will, he knows, change the shape of their relationship. But buried deep behind this truth is a darker truth. Trust the music, then? But music too has its trickery.
The sheer ambition of this opera is evinced on many planes. It is set in a five act structure and also, like a Renaissance play, there is poetry (song) and prose (speech). Both have their own beauty, and their own problems.
Sofi Oksanen’s Finnish libretto, is translated into eight languages by Saariaho’s son and collaborator, Aleksi Barriere, a novelist and playwright. I can only speak of the languages I know (English, German and French). While in English, the spoken and sung words seem somewhat prosaic, in French there is flow and hints of beauty, but it is in the German that there is poetry. The words sound like those of Peter Handke. The German musical actor’s acting, his grinding body, is as rich as his spoken delivery.
There is some astounding singing in this production: the mother of the dead girl, the priest, and the dead girl, played by the Finnish folk artist, Vilma Jaa. She is given the most playful repertoire of songs in the opera . Her songs and her singing are spiky, like an electric fence about to go live, and then her voice softens, cradling us, mocking our fear. To my ears, unfamiliar as I am with Finnish folk music, the songs sound like Arab caravan music; raw, captivating.
A superb production, a superb ensemble, and music and directing so mesmerising and new, it shakes the possibility of what opera can do.
This is one of the best shows I’ve seen in a very long time. And as the lady who ushered us into out seats rightly said, ‘This one is joining the canon.’
- Composer: Kaija Saariaho
- Librettist: Sofi Oksanen
- Director: Simon Stone
- Conductor: Susanna Malkki
- Translator: Aleksi Barriere
- Royal Opera House
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