AIX-EN-PROVENCE (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
Susanna Malkki wanted more.
Can you make the crescendo even bigger here? she asked the London Symphony Orchestra as she conducted it in a recent rehearsal here. Dont be afraid to go beyond the mezzo-piano on the page.
They played the passage again, and this time the music swelled to a shock, one of many in the most anticipated new opera of the year: Kaija Saariahos Innocence, which premieres Saturday at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Commissioned by a host of major houses, it will travel in the coming years to the Finnish and Dutch national operas, the Royal Opera in London, San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Nearly a decade in the making, and nearly thwarted by the pandemic, Innocence is taut yet immense: a labyrinth of mystery and memory navigated at a breakneck pace, with the forces of a full orchestra, a chorus and a cast of 13.
Its plot, so contemporary that you could imagine reading about it in tomorrows newspaper, recalls Saariahos 2006 opera Adriana Mater and it is light years from her most famous stage work, the ethereally seductive LAmour de Loin (2000), set in medieval times. Like both of those, along with her comparatively intimate, Noh-inspired Only the Sound Remains, from 2015, it has the makings of a singular contribution to the art form, on a scale rarely seen in new operas.
I have a long career in commissioning, Aix-en-Provence Festival director Pierre Audi said in an interview. And this is one of the five greatest pieces that Ive ever been involved with.
Its difficult to summarize Innocence, and its creative team has been intentionally secretive about the plot, which reveals itself like a fuzzy image that gradually comes into focus. The action alternates between a present-day wedding and a long-ago tragedy at an international school, with surprising connections between the two becoming an exploration of trauma and its permeating effects.
The core of the opera is its multilingual libretto, by Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen with translations by Aleksi Barrière, Saariahos son and occasional collaborator. The texts use of different languages including German, French, English, Greek, Finnish, Spanish and Czech prompted Saariaho to employ similarly varied vocal techniques, such as folk, Sprechstimme and lyrical, rhythmic speech. (The cast includes a mix of singers and actors.)
Some of the languages were new to Saariaho, and required time to learn the contours 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 setting to work, Saariaho met with Kozena in Paris to record her speaking.
Analyzing the languages I dont speak was fascinating, but thats why it took so long to compose this piece, Saariaho, who spent several years developing Innocence and the better part of four years writing it, said before a rehearsal.
During that time, a team came together. Saariaho asked Malkki one of the worlds leading interpreters of her music, and the dedicatee of this years orchestral work Vista to be the conductor.
It was very important for her to know early on who would be doing it, said Malkki, who led LAmour de Loin at the Met when it arrived there and conducted the premiere of the 2006 oratorio La Passion de Simone. Which of course I felt was an incredible gesture of trust.
More recently, Saariaho was introduced through Audi to director Simon Stone, and felt that his temperament was very well suited to the opera. In a promotional interview for the festival, Stone spoke about the works beautiful exploration of the scars that we carry with us and the need to reopen wounds so we can heal them properly.
Its got, he added, a kind of Chekhovian empathy for its characters.
The premiere was planned for last year but was canceled during the pandemics spring surge. By summer, however, the viruss spread had ebbed enough for the creative team and cast though not the chorus or orchestra to rehearse the opera in something of a bubble residency. The work was more or less staged, and the music was prepared as much as it could be with only a piano.
In some ways, we were all disappointed, Kozena said. But any time you rehearse something, then leave it and come back, it grows and you digest it better. It was a complete luxury for us to rehearse in peace and really just explore it.
Audi referred to that period as a stroke of luck. Some premieres originally planned for the past year have been stranded, but Innocence was in a position to return as soon as possible. The previous work on it even allowed Stone to be double booked for the 2021 festival, directing Innocence and Wagners Tristan und Isolde, with relatively little friction. Crucially, Audi said, Saariahos opera will now be able to travel without further delay.
On a recent evening, Stone was able to attend only the first half of a rehearsal for Innocence, stopping by Kozenas dressing room on the way out for a quick note but otherwise looking visibly pleased and saying, It really is a good show.
We couldnt see him very much this year, Kozena said after he left. But the most pressing work, she added, was musical anyway. She had originally learned the opera with a piano reduction, which inevitably lacked the layered textures of Saariahos score.
So now its a challenge, she said. Hearing the full orchestra, its like, Wheres my note?
A single note can be hard to find in Saariahos dense score a sound world haunted by a ghostly chorus and spectral flourishes that vanish as suddenly as they arrive. Like many of her works, the music is never truly at rest and keeps organically changing shape, with subtly specific characterizations for each role and a fluidity that matches the librettos interwoven timelines and perspectives.
I dont know why or how, but I kept coming back in my mind to The Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci, 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. This became a kind of idee fixe for me.
The characters have their own musical signifiers which means, Malkki said, that in the beginning, theres a lot to take in, but then that is the element which makes it very understandable.
Despite the scores overall density, Kozena has found the vocal writing comfortable. Saariaho, she said, really understands voices: She lets you express yourself, with colors and melody that gives you space to really concentrate on the music and let it be in your body. Only then can you give emotions that are really deep.
With the orchestra finally in the pit, Malkki said, she has continued to make new discoveries. And the more time she spends with Innocence, the more she is convinced that it represents the future of opera.
Its not escapism, she said. Its a work that actually helps us better understand the world that we live in. These are huge themes, bringing all these different destinies together and showing how we have to live together in reconciliation. And that coexistence is there in the music.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times