AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France – Susanna Malkki wanted more.
“Can you make the crescendo even bigger here?” She asked the London Symphony Orchestra as she conducted it at a recent rehearsal here. “Don’t be afraid to go beyond the mezzo-piano on the page.”
They replayed the passage, and this time the music swelled to a shock, one of many in the most anticipated new opera of the year: “Innocence” by Kaija Saariaho premiered on Saturday at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Commissioned by many large houses, he will travel in the years to come in the national opera houses of Finland and the Netherlands, the Royal Opera in London, the San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Almost a decade in the making, and almost thwarted by the pandemic, “Innocence” is tense but immense: a labyrinth of mystery and memory navigated at a breakneck pace, with the forces of a full orchestra, a choir and from a distribution of 13.
Its plot, so contemporary that one might imagine reading it in tomorrow’s newspaper, is reminiscent of Saariaho’s 2006 opera “Adriana Mater” – and is light years away from her most famous stage work, The Alluring Ethereal ” L’Amour de Loin “(2000), which takes place in medieval times. Like the two, as well as his relatively intimate and Noh-inspired “Only the Sound Remains” in 2015, he makes a unique contribution to this art form, on a scale rarely seen in new operas.
“I have a long career in ordering,” said Pierre Audi, director of the Festival d’Aix, in an interview. “And it’s one of the five greatest pieces I’ve ever been involved with.”
It is difficult to sum up “Innocence”, and its creative team has deliberately kept the plot a secret, which reveals itself as a fuzzy image that gradually becomes clearer. The action alternates between a wedding today and a tragedy long ago at an international school, with surprising connections between the two becoming an exploration of trauma and its penetrating effects.
The heart of the opera is its multilingual libretto, by Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen with translations by Aleksi Barrière, son of Saariaho and occasional collaborator. The use of the text in different languages - including German, French, English, Greek, Finnish, Spanish and Czech – prompted Saariaho to employ such varied vocal techniques, such as folk, the Sprechstimme and the lyrical and rhythmic discourse. (The cast includes a mix of singers and actors.)
Some of the languages were new to Saariaho and took time to learn the outlines of their words and the cadences of their sentences. One role was written specifically with Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena in mind, for example; before getting to work, Saariaho met Kozena in Paris to record his speech.
“Analyzing the languages I don’t speak was fascinating, but that’s why it took so long to compose this piece,” said Saariaho, who spent several years developing “Innocence” and almost four years writing it. , before a rehearsal.
During this time, a team was formed. Saariaho asked Malkki, one of the world’s greatest performers of his music and the dedicatee of this year’s orchestral work “Vista” – be the conductor.
“It was very important for her to know very early on who was going to do it,” Malkki, who conducted “L’Amour de Loin” at the Met upon arriving there and conducted the premiere of the oratorio in 2006 “ Simone’s Passion, “recalled.” Which of course I felt was an incredible gesture of confidence. “
Most recently, Saariaho was introduced by Audi to director Simon Stone, and felt his temperament was “very well suited” to opera. In a promotional interview for the festival, Stone spoke of the “beautiful exploration of the scar work we carry with us and the need to reopen the wounds so that we can heal them properly.”
“There is, he added, a kind of Chekhovian empathy for his characters.
The first was scheduled for last year, but was canceled during the spring outbreak of the pandemic. By the summer, however, the spread of the virus had ebbed enough that the creative team and cast – but not the choir or orchestra – rehearse the opera in a sort of bubble residence. The work was more or less staged, and the music was prepared as much as it could be with just a piano.
“In some ways we’ve all been disappointed,” Kozena said. “But every time you repeat something and then leave it and come back, it grows and you digest it better. It was complete luxury for us to rehearse in peace and really explore it.
Audi called this period a “fluke”. Some premieres originally scheduled for last year were blocked, but “Innocence” was able to return as soon as possible. Previous work on it even allowed Stone to be double-booked for the 2021 festival, achieving “Innocence” and “Tristan und Isolde” by Wagner. with relatively little friction. Above all, said Audi, Saariaho’s opera house will now be able to travel without further delay.
On a recent party, Stone was only able to attend the first half of a rehearsal of “Innocence”, stopping in Kozena’s dressing room on the way out for a quick note but looking visibly delighted. and saying, “This is a really good show.”
“We couldn’t see him a lot this year,” Kozena said after leaving. But the most urgent work, she added, was musical anyway. She had originally learned opera with a piano reduction, which inevitably lacked the layered textures of Saariaho’s score.
“So now it’s a challenge,” she said. “Hearing the whole orchestra, it’s like, ‘Where’s my grade? “”
A single note can be hard to find in Saariaho’s dense score – a sonic world haunted by ghostly chorus and spectral flourishes that disappear as suddenly as they come. Like many of his works, the music is never truly at rest and continues to change organically, with subtly specific characterizations for each role and a fluidity that matches the libretto’s interwoven chronologies and perspectives.
“I don’t know why or how, but I kept coming back in my mind to Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’,” Saariaho said. “I was thinking about how all of these 13 people have their own story and their own motivations, and how we all experience every moment differently. We all pay attention to different things. It has become a sort of fixed idea for me.
The characters have their own musical signifiers – which means, according to Malkki, that “at first there is a lot to take in, but this is the element that makes it very understandable.”
Despite the overall density of the score, Kozena found the vocal writing to be comfortable. Saariaho, she said, “really understands vocals”: “She lets you express yourself, with colors and melody that give you the space to really focus on the music and let it be in your body. . Only then can you give really deep emotions.
With the orchestra finally in the pit, said Malkki, she continued to make new discoveries. And the more time she spends with “Innocence”, the more convinced she is that she represents the future of opera.
“It’s not escape,” she said. “It’s work that actually helps us better understand the world we live in. These are huge themes, bringing together all these different destinies and showing how we must live together in reconciliation. And that coexistence is there in the music.