Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
If Kaija Saariaho’s previous four operas had one thing in common, it was their refusal to settle for overt dramatic impact, or to favor theatrical effect over musical intensity. From her first stage work, L’Amour de Loin, the beauty of the scores, the vague instrumental colors she surrounds and the clothes her vocal lines wear, is more important than the story they support.
Innocence, which came to Covent Garden almost two years after its world premiere in Aix-en-Provence, promised to be different: the story has more than enough emotional capacity to inspire the greatest musical dramas they have something to do with it. Sofi Oksanen’s original Finnish library, multilingually adapted by Aleksi Barrière, is set in contemporary Finland and deals with the aftermath of a school shooting in which 10 students and their teacher were killed. Tereza, a waitress at a wedding reception, recognizes the groom (Tuomas) as the brother of the boy who committed the crime in which her daughter, Markéta, was one of the victims 10 years earlier.
As the opera unfolds for 105 minutes, the survivors relive the violence and conflicted emotions that have plagued them ever since, and after confronting Tereza , the family tries again to come to terms with what their unnamed son has done. It turns out that Tuomas’s bride, Stela, knows nothing of this darkest family secret; all the horror is left unresolved, and only Tereza achieves some kind of salvation in the end, reconciling with the ghost of her dead daughter.
Dramatically at least, the story is presented as thoughtfully and sensitively as it could be, in Oksanen’s text and director Simon Stone’s staging, which consistently resists any temptation to turn it into a big -guignol, and Chloe Lamford’s revolving, multi-room series can. being at the hotel where the wedding reception is taking place, and the international school where the shooting took place. But once again, Saariaho’s score keeps the drama at arm’s length. Everything lives at the same pace, without change, and her unfailingly beautiful orchestral music, full of shimmering sound and gentle fragments of melody, does not rush or take control to intensify the drama, although it is all realized that beautiful by the Royal Opera orchestra under Susanna Mälkki. .
The voice lines of the main characters (surviving students have spoken roles) rarely go beyond Sprechgesang enter completely arioso, and make small to focus on the sharper figures, so that they are more or less still ciphers; even excellent singers such as Christopher Purves as the father-in-law, Sandrine Piau as his wife, and Jenny Carlstedt as Tereza, struggle to make their characters three-dimensional. Ultimately it is the writing for Markéta, the waitress’s dead daughter, that stands out. She sings in the Finno-Ugric folk style of the Sami people of northern Finland, vividly portrayed by Vilma Jää. Perhaps the only moment that succeeds in the musical, the final scene, is her saying goodbye to her mother; There really should be a lot more moments like that when dealing with a subject of such depth and relevance.
• Innocence is represented at the Royal Opera House, London, until 4 May.