MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Saariaho’s Innocence

After a yearlong delay caused by the pandemic, the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence has unveiled Innocence, its latest opera commission from Kaaija Sariaho. Despite its tragic story involving a school shooting, the experience — even at a distance, via the stream currently available on, is overwhelmingly affirmative: of the power of art to transform impossible pain and senselessness.

Innocence, set in contemporary Helsinki, features a libretto by the Finnish novelist Sofi Oksanen, with multilingual contributions by Aleksi Barrière. The text incorporates English, Czech, Romanian, French, Swedish, German, Spanish, and Greek in addition to Finnish, its setting in an international school suggesting an allegory for Europe’s attempt to achieve a multicultural society.

From the Aix summary: “It is a typical wedding for a cosmopolitan city, in present-day Finland. The fiancé is Finnish, the bride Romanian, and the mother-in-law French. But suddenly, during the wedding banquet, the Czech waitress feels ill… Ten years earlier, these characters were struck by a tragic event. Ghosts revive their memories of the trauma, which occurred in a school; there is a guilty haze, a lost innocence.”

The Australian director Simon Stone staged Innocence, with Susanna Mälkki conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; the cast features Magdalena Kožená, Sandrine Piau, Tuomas Pursio, Lilian Farahani, Markus Nykänen, Jukka Rasilainen, Lucy Shelton, among others.

Zachary Wolfe, in his eloquent review, describes Saariaho’s score: “Porous and agile; simmering beneath and around the voices; and only occasionally, briefly exploding, this is music as a vehicle for exploring and intensifying drama. It is complex, yet confident enough to exist not merely for its own sake.”

Writing for Bachtrack, Romain Daroles observes: “The score is served with a masterly hand by Susanna Mälkki and the London Symphony Orchestra who, from the opening of the opera, creates a music box that the implacable and impeccable rigor of execution quickly transforms into a Pandora’s box, revealing one by one the secrets, the defects, and the evils of individuals, of humanity.”

Declares Reinhard Brembeck in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “She continues what Claude Debussy initiated. She meets the unadorned reality and its brutality with a slight detachment, she wraps the action with a veil of sadness, love and clairvoyance. This enables the audience to accept this confidently unobtrusive avant-garde music without resistance. Kaija Saariaho is the greatest master of opera today.”

Innocence was co-commissioned by a consortium of companies that will bring the work to Helsinki, Amsterdam, London, New York, and San Francisco.

View the score here.

Filed under: Aix-en-Provence, new opera, Saariaho

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