Opera Review: INNOCENCE (San Francisco Opera)

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by Michael M. Landman-Karny on June 20, 2024

in Music,Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


San Francisco Opera is offering the hauntingly beautiful U.S. premiere of Innocence, a contemporary opera that is destined to be a staple of the modern operatic repertoire. Composed by the late Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, the opera delves into themes of guilt, redemption, and the haunting echoes of past traumas. Saariaho, known for her ethereal soundscapes and masterful use of electronic music, brings a unique voice to the operatic world. While her previous works, such as L’Amour de Loin and Adriana Mater, also have profundity and innovative use of musical structure, Saariaho’s score for Innocence, combined with Sofi Oksanen’s persuasive libretto, makes for an unforgettable operatic experience.

Claire de Sévigné as the Mother-in-Law (Patricia), Miles Mykkanen as the Bridegroom (Tuomas),
Lilian Farahani as the Bride (Stela), Ruxandra Donose as the Waitress (Tereza),
and Rod Gilfry as the Father-in-Law (Henrik)
Innocence at San Francisco Opera

Innocence is set in a small Finnish village and revolves around a tragic school shooting. It opens with a wedding celebration that is abruptly interrupted by the revelation of the groom’s dark past. Ten years earlier, his brother was the perpetrator of a school shooting that left many dead and the community shattered. As the opera unfolds, we are taken through a series of flashbacks and present-day confrontations, each revealing the lingering scars left by the tragedy. Oksanen’s libretto interweaves these timelines seamlessly, creating a narrative that is both compelling and suffused with pathos (the Multilingual Librettist and Dramaturg is Aleksi Barrière).

Lilian Farahani as the Bride (Stela), Miles Mykkanen as the Bridegroom (Tuomas),
Claire de Sévigné as the Mother-in-Law (Patricia), Rod Gilfry as the Father-in-Law (Henrik)

Immediately, we are enveloped in Saariaho’s forbiddingly gorgeous sound world. Conductor Clément Mao-Takacs, who has worked on the opera with Saariaho since its inception, handles the challenging score with both authority and sensitivity. His deep understanding of the music, almost rivaling the composer’s own, allows him to articulate its complex musical and dramatic tiers with exceptional clarity.

The Ensemble

The cast was uniformly excellent, with each member delivering performances of extraordinary passionate intensity. In the role of the Bride, Soprano Lilian Farahani captures the character’s journey from joy to despair with heartbreaking clarity. Her voice, crystalline and powerful, soared above the orchestra, conveying the character’s inner turmoil. As the Groom, Finnish-American Tenor Miles Mykkanen brings a complex mix of culpability and vulnerability to his role. His scenes with Farahani are particularly affecting, their voices blending beautifully in moments both tender and conflicted. American Baritone Rod Gilfry gives a convincing performance as Henrik, the troubled Father-in-Law whose family is falling apart around him. Patricia, the mother-in-law, portrayed by the enchanting coloratura soprano Claire de Sévigné, seems completely desensitized from her awful reality. The Priest is sung with kind heartedness by bass Kristinn Sigmundsson and Julie Hega gives a chilling performance as the shooter’s best friend, Iris.

Lilian Farahani as the Bride (Stela)

The extraordinary Vilma Jää, a Finnish folk singer specializing in Finno-Ugric singing and herding song plays an other-worldly student, Markéta. Saariaho offers haunting music high in Jää’s range, decorated with yips and cow-calling techniques.

Vilma Jää as Student #1 (Markéta)

The vocal line for soprano Lucy Shelton, the elderly unnamed Teacher, moves slowly, dragging out the words as if they are being pulled from deep within her body; sometimes, Shelton literally drags herself around the set.

Lucy Shelton as the Teacher

The standout performance of the evening, however, comes from Romanian mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose. Her portrayal of a woman grappling with an unfathomable loss is nothing short of devastating. Her aria in the second act, in which she reflects on her memories of the day of the shooting, is a masterclass in poignant storytelling.

Rod Gilfry as the Father-in-Law (Henrik) and Ruxandra Donose as the Waitress (Tereza)

Director Simon Stone’s minimalist production (staged by revival director Louise Bakker) is the perfect complement to the score. His direction is focused and precise, eliciting nuanced performances as he expertly balances the opera’s moments of intense drama with quieter, more introspective scenes. The stark, modern set designed by Chloe Lamford consists of a series of shifting panels that transform to depict different locations. This fluidity mirrors the opera’s non-linear narrative, allowing for smooth transitions between past and present. The use of projections, designed by Tal Yarden, adds an additional layer of visual storytelling, depicting the memories and nightmares that haunt the characters. The result is a production that is both expressive and visually arresting.

Camilo Delgado Díaz as Student #5 (Jerónimo)

Saariaho’s score is a tour de force, blending traditional orchestral textures with electronic elements to create a sound world that is both familiar and ethereal. The opening chorus, performed backstage by the choir of the San Francisco Opera, sets the tone with its eerie harmonies and shifting rhythms. The orchestral interludes, filled with shimmering strings and haunting woodwinds, provide moments of reflection amidst the intense drama.

Beate Mordal as Student #2 (Lilly)

One of the most striking musical moments comes in the form of a duet between the Bride and the Groom in the first act. Saariaho’s use of dissonance and overlapping vocal lines create a sense of unresolved tension. The final scene, in which the characters come to terms with the past and look towards an uncertain future, is a fitting conclusion as the music is also at once mournful and hopeful.

Vilma Jää as Student #1 (Markéta) (center) with Lucy Shelton as the Teacher,
and Rowan Kievits as Student #4 (Anton)

Saariaho’s ability to weave electronic and acoustic elements into a cohesive soundscape is ingenious. The use of recorded sounds, from the creepy echo of school bells to the distant hum of voices, adds layers that enhance the narrative’s psychological depth. The percussion section stands out for its innovative use of unconventional instruments, creating a sound world that is both unsettling and deeply evocative. Saariaho’s orchestrations are meticulous, with every instrument contributing to the overall tapestry of sound, each note meticulously placed to elicit a vivid response.

Beate Mordal Student #2 (Lilly), Julie Hega Student #3 (Iris), Rowan Kievits Student #4
(Anton), Camilo Delgado Díaz Student #5 (Jerónimo), and Marina Dumont Student #6 (Alexia)

Sofi Oksanen’s libretto is a crucial element of the opera’s success. Her use of language is both poetic and , capturing the raw emotions of the characters with precision. The interplay between multiple sung and spoken languages (the school is an English-language school for international students), and English text added a layer of realism and complexity to the narrative, reflecting the cultural and fraught divide between the characters. Oksanen’s writing is unflinching in its portrayal of trauma, yet it also offers moments of unexpected beauty and hope, creating a balanced and multifaceted narrative.

Rowan Kievits as Student #4 (Anton), Beate Mordal as Student #2 (Lilly), Lucy Shelton
as the Teacher, Marina Dumont as Student #6 (Alexia), Vilma Jää as Student #1 (Markéta),
Camilo Delgado Díaz as Student #5 (Jerónimo), and Julie Hega as Student #3 (Iris)

Innocence tackles themes that are both timely and universal. The opera’s exploration of complicity, memory, and redemption resonates deeply in a world where communities are often scarred by acts of violence. The creators do not shy away from the complexities of these themes, instead presenting them in all their raw, painful truth. The opera’s title itself is a sad reflection on the loss of innocence, not just of the victims, but of the community. This exploration is not limited to the characters on stage but extends to viewers, prompting a collective reflection on our own experiences and societal responsibilities.

Kristinn Sigmundsson as the Priest

Indeed, the audience reaction was a testament to the opera’s profound impact. From the moment the final notes faded, the War Memorial Opera House was filled with a silence that spoke volumes. This was followed by an ovation that was not just for the exceptional execution but for the courage to present such a raw and moving work. This is not an opera I would recommend, however, to audiences who would be triggered by scenes of violence, death, and family trauma. Audiences looking for melodious opera in the style of Puccini or Mozart would also probably not appreciate the challenging score.

Miles Mykkanen as the Bridegroom (Tuomas), Kristinn Sigmundsson as the Priest,
Lilian Farahani as the Bride (Stela), Rod Gilfry as the Father-in-Law (Henrik),
and Claire de Sévigné as the Mother-in-Law (Patricia)

This is a production that will linger in my mind for a long time, a touching reminder of the power of opera to explore the deepest aspects of the human condition. Innocence challenges, moves, and transforms its audience, reaffirming the essential place of contemporary works in the operatic canon.

photos by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave
in English with English supertitles
ends on June 21, 2024
for tickets, call 415-864-3330 or visit SF Opera

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