Review of the Festival d’Aix-En-Provence 2021: Innocence
(Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)
Postponed from last year, due to COVID restrictions, Kaija Saariaho’s new opera “Innocence” finally received its world premiere at this year’s Aix-en-Provence Festival, and it did not disappoint .
The libretto, written by Sofi Oksanen, mixes two stories that relate to a school shooting. One focuses on the students and their teacher who were present at the time of the massacre. The time frame oscillates fluidly between reflection and a visual presentation of the events of that day. The second takes place today during a wedding in which the shooter’s family celebrates the marriage of their innocent son. But the heavy hand of fate intervenes, forcing the family to confront the events of the past when the waitress at the festive dinner recognizes them: her daughter is among the victims killed by their other son. As the opera develops, the two narratives seamlessly merge into a single installment, which takes a number of surprising twists and turns, raising questions about the guilt and innocence of everyone involved.
It’s also a narrative that has incorporated many themes, in which the complex nature of the guilt, and how it affects even those far removed from the incident, is central. It explores the grieving process and the need for honesty in the face of trauma, and intelligently tells how self-deception, secrets and lies are used to redefine our relationship to the past.
The opera has 13 characters, but it is not dominated by a single figure. Rather, it’s built in such a way that events can be seen from multiple angles, through the eyes of everyone involved, even down to a student hiding in the toilet trying to shield himself from the shooter, too scared to open the door. door to another student who was becoming a victim; an act intended to create another level of trauma and guilt.
The complex and masterful score of Saariaho
Saariaho has the ability to draw listeners into its soundscape, and the same goes with “Innocence”. From the ominous darkness of the opening bars, the audience finds themselves drawn into the unfolding nightmare. The work is written for an orchestra of substantial size using a wide range of instruments, allowing for a variety of orchestral sounds and textures, which Saariaho used to explore and sustain the drama, however, it rarely takes center stage, which is left to the singers.
With 13 characters to write for, she decided to introduce a variety of forms of expression, ranging from spoken, semi-spoken and folk idiom to sprechgesang and lyrics, in which certain voices were amplified. The characters at the wedding feast were given parts of traditional song as in a normal opera, while the students and the teacher were given other forms. The interplay of voices presented in such different ways alongside the colorful orchestral accompaniment created a captivating and absorbing experience, which, above all, worked exceptionally well in escalating the drama. An extra level of complexity was added by having the filming take place in an international school, so that the libretto contained at least nine different languages, each with their own rhythms and accents, to which Saariaho blends his musical tapestry.
The London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Susanna Mälkki produced a fine reading of the score that captured its subtle instrumental details and skillfully developed its colorful textures, while carefully exploring the interplay of the orchestra and vocals. It certainly wasn’t a read that insisted on being noticed, but succeeded in promoting the drama on stage.
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under the direction of Lodewijk van der Ree produced a haunting sound that oscillated between text and sound, and complemented the drama perfectly.
The visually striking and insightful direction of Stones
With the help of set designer Chloe Lamford and costume designer Mel Page, director Simon Stone opted for a naturalistic presentation with a restaurant, kitchen, laundry room, restrooms, stairwell, study room and hall. class. Lamford created a large rotating cube incorporating two levels, with the wedding party on the lower level and the international school on the upper level. It was an efficient and imaginative staging that allowed the drama to move seamlessly with no interruptions to the scenery changes – which took place out of view of the audience as the cube spun around. As the stories combined, the pieces of the cube changed so that in the end the entire cube became the school. In addition, it was possible to present both stories simultaneously; while a scene could take place in the restaurant, it was also possible to watch the students go about their business at school on the upper level.
In the program notes, Stone explained that his approach focused on exploring the scars caused by the shooting and the need for those involved to deal with their trauma, “to reopen the wounds of the past to heal them.” To this end, he encouraged singers and comedians to present their disparate and deeply felt emotions with raw and penetrating clarity, in which the scenes of confrontation between the waitress and the father, then with the mother stood out as particularly well put together. . . That didn’t mean Stone had played down the bloody events themselves. On the contrary, the sheer terror of the students fleeing from the gunman, and the corpses that were allowed to lie on the stage with blood spattered on the walls, made it very clear what was happening and the horror that it involved.
The wedding party
Initially, the wedding party seemed to be a typical festive dinner, in which one could discern a little anxiety; normal on such occasions. However, beneath the surface lies the deep trauma of the shootings, a trauma that the waitress’s presence forces into the open, resuscitating memories and guilt, which in turn precipitates the denouement of lies, deceptions and self-deception.
Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kōzená was chosen as the waitress. In what was a fiery performance, she carefully crafted the deep pain and suffering that her character experienced. Yet it was not a flat portrait, but one in which she captured a range of nuanced emotions, ranging from anger and growing anxiety, to delusion and denial, to resentment and bitterness. . Her song was wonderfully shaped, full of lively accents, dynamic changes and colorful undertones.
Soprano Sandrine Piau has painted a captivating portrait of the stepmother, who just hadn’t faced up to her son’s actions, even wondering if it was not too late to call and invite him at the wedding reception, and accusing the waitress’ daughter of causing her son’s actions. It was a finely honed performance, in which Piau subtly flexed the vocal line with emotional depth and anxious accents.
The stepfather was a typical middle class father and husband who tried to do the best for his family. Still, he is aware of why there are so few people at the wedding, aware of his wife’s delusions and issues with not telling his stepdaughter the truth. He was played by bass-baritone Tuomas Pursio, who produced a good vocal performance in which he perfectly molded the vocal line to suit the character’s fairly calm personality, who when pushed was able to confront the truth of his own role in the tragedy.
The groom played by tenor Markus Nykänen had an excellent performance. Her character undergoes a significant change during the wedding reception. Calm and happy at the start, distraught and hollowed out at the end. He’s not the innocent that everyone thinks he is! Her singing exhibited a high degree of expressiveness and emotional honesty which enabled her to successfully develop her character.
The Innocent Bride was played by soprano Lilian Farahani. It was supposed to be her happy day, the day she found the family she dreamed of, having spent her orphan childhood in Romania. She knew nothing about the family secret, until the waitress intervened. Farahani’s young and bright voice suited the bride’s cheerful demeanor perfectly. Even faced with the secrecy of the family, she remained united. It wasn’t until another, more devastating secret was revealed that her world finally fell apart.
The priest was played on bass-baritone Jukka Rasilainen. He sang precisely, but was too weak to be completely effective.
The international school
The context of an international school added an extra dimension to the shoot, with students coming from all parts of the world. They are the main victims of the gunman’s frenzied attack, but they also carry some of the guilt, as as the story unfolds it becomes clear that they had banded together to intimidate him and humiliate him.
Soprano Lucy Shelton was the teacher who witnessed events unfold and acts as the narrator, relaying her impressions and her own sense of guilt to the audience. She made a good impression, presenting her lines in a manner similar to sprechgesang, which worked well and added to the vocal textures of the work.
Markéta is the waitress’s daughter and one of the shooter’s victims. She is a carefully drawn figure; excellent at school, very studious, good at songwriting, maybe a little lonely, but not unpopular. Vilma Jää, a Finnish singer-songwriter played the role. She possesses a high and supple soprano, with which she created the most remarkable verses by interpolating the flock cries once used by the Karelian shepherds, which sometimes gave her voice an almost disembodied sound. At the last curtain, she received hearty applause, so much was the quality and impact of her vocal skills.
Soprano Beate Mordal played the role of Lilly well. She was the leader of the bullying incident and was eventually shot by the gunman.
Julie Hega playing the spoken role of Student 3 sympathizes with the shooter after his humiliation and planned the murders with him. It was an important role that showed his ability to develop a truly believable and ultimately confusing character.
Simon Kluth, Camilo Delgardo Diaz and Marina Dumont also impressed in smaller acting roles, in which their fear during filming and the depth of their trauma were convincingly tried.
In the end, it wasn’t a job on a school shooting; it could have been any traumatic event. It was about the consequences: guilt, self-delusion, lies and coming to terms with what had happened, confronting the past and trying to carve out future lives. The fact that the work has such a tense and strong narrative as a backdrop means that it is also a gripping play.
Without a doubt, “Innocence” is a painful work to watch as there is a lot of pain in sight; lives are lost and the lives of survivors are destroyed, pushed to their emotional limits. Yet in the epilogue, the surviving students talk about their future with optimism, and Markéta, the deceased daughter of the waitress, encourages her mother to stop dwelling on the past, to stop buying her her apples and gifts. favorite birthday and move on.
In the coming seasons, “Innocence” is scheduled for performances in Covent Garden, Amsterdam, Helsinki, San Francisco and the New York Met. It is a production not to be missed.