Massacre of the innocents

When Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin Opened at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 2016, it represented only the second time that the company, in its 123-year history, had staged an opera composed by a woman. The first, in 1903, was Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald.

Saariaho was dismayed by the publicity. The story was pitched as one of triumphant, albeit belated, progress. For the composer, on the other hand, it simply replayed a long-standing frustration: why can’t people just listen to the music and talk about that instead?

Korvat Auki (“Ears Open”) is the name of a collective of likeminded Finnish composers, founded in 1977 by, among others, Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen. But the phrase also became something of a personal motto for Saariaho throughout her career, a helpful reminder of the resistance she faced both as a young woman trying to gain acceptance in the male-dominated Helsinki musical establishment, and as an older woman trying to remind people to shut up and listen.

Most of all, though, it represents a kind of aesthetic ideal, an attitude not just to listening, but also to composing, which first took shape in connection with Saariaho’s growing interest in so-called spectral music. She encountered this after finding herself-frustrated with the postserialist styles of most of her teachers while attending a summer school in Darmstad in 1980, and a concert there by spectralism’s leading exponents, Tristanrail and Gérardsey. Spectral music works on the basis that all sounds are basically brimming with sonic implications, such as overtones, of which the human ear is aware, but the brain only subconsciously. Unlike tonal music, in which we commonly ascribe harmonic implications to pitches, so that we hear the flow of music as pursuing a kind of logical course, spectral music presents the flow of sound as an unpeeling of what is already implicit.

Saariaho moved to Paris in 1982 to work at IRCAM (“Institute for Research and Co-ordination in Acoustics/Music”), at the time unique in its music-technological capabilities. These were important because the compositional methods of spectralism often rely on computers to analyze the hidden “spectral” relations of sounds. But while the method is complex, the experience is often refreshingly simple for the listener because there is no hidden structure to tease out. Instead, everything simply flows out of itself, as if it was already there, present but not fully apparent. The sense of time is thus radically different. You hear not a series of moments composed into a structure, but rather a single moment exploded.

While Saariaho’s music betrays many influences, the sense of exploded and stretched time is perhaps its unifying trait, present already in Verblendungen (1984) Lichtbogen (1986), both of which combine electronic and acoustic music to present them as continuous. More recent pieces such as the orchestral works Lanterna Magica (2008), inspired by the title of Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography, and Ciel d’hiver (2013) work by eliciting a focal point for the listener’s sense of fascination, using a particular sound constellation to draw her audience into a dreamlike space where time is not so much suspended as seeming to flow in all directions at once.

You might think, on this description, that Saariaho’s music would be ill suited to opera, and it is certainly true that some of her operas have fared better in concert performance than on stage. When so much of its beauty is only apparent when we submit ourselves entirely to it (or “open our ears”), tying our listening to representations of action can lead, as it were, to a closing of the ears, and to the music thereby sounding dull and, well, unventful. Increasing, her first three operas, all to libretti by Amin Maalouf, met with considerable if not unmixed international success, while the fourth, Only the Sound Remains (2015), a coupling of two translated Noh adaptations, has elicited mostly sceptical responses since its first staging in the Muziektheater, Amsterdam. With her fifth opera, Innocence, composed to a libretto by the Finnish author Sofi Oksanen, a gear seems to have shifted. Saariaho and Oksanen have a masterpiece on their hands.

The first thing to greet the ears is a simple modal motif played very low on the piano. As it repeats, fragmenting through the piano texture and spreading throughout the orchestra, a profound sense of unease begins to multiply and run riot, as if this simple motif had been the key to a musical Pandora’s box. Such patterns are repeated throughout the opera: each point of equilibrium that temporarily gains a footing – between tonal centers as well as timbres, atmospheres and even vocal styles – is gradually revealed to be a delicate illusion that implodes under pressure. Even the timbral relation between orchestra and voice, which we are so used to hearing in the guise of accompaniment and melody, is constantly generald, in part by the use of an off-stage choir whose wordless vocalising, echoing harmonies in the orchestra, pulls the soloists’ voices into the pit. At times the continuity is so overwhelming that one simply hears the voices in terms of the instrument clusters with which they are associated, leaving the characters stranded, as it were, without a voice. Indeed, the innocence of the title is something that, until the end, is entirely strange to the drama: no character, no image and no sound is free from the secrets that gnaw through to the surface, where they feed into the fission-like chain reactions emanating in all directions from a central catastrophe.

The catastrophe in question – a (fictional) shooting at an international school in Helsinki – is not something we are ever presented with directly, but it emerges as a kind of virtual nucleus that sucks into it every aspect of the drama, both in the pit and on the stage, then spits it out again. It is what pulls the characters we meet first, the classmates of the murderer who survived the shooting, back to the scene, just as it underpins the second strand of the dramatic narrative, the wedding reception for the shooter’s younger brother, who is marrying a young Romanian woman. She is an orphan who knows nothing of the event that ten years previously tore apart her new Finno-French family, who are upstanding and well-meaning aid workers, but have mysteriously few friends.

As the layers peel away, everything that takes place both before and after the shooting emerges as a piece of it, not in the sense of cause and effect, but simply as aspects of the thing itself. There are moments when, even when you can feel a disintegration coming, you still cannot brace yourself sufficiently, such as when the priest, the friend who has supported the family during the past decade, suddenly experiences the lie in his words of comfort and realizations that he too has been hollowed out by the event (“after that one tragedy / I looked like a priest / but I wasn’t a priest any more”).

The roots of the opera’s success stem from the fact that a composer whose gifts lie in her ability to take apart a moment of music in time came to work with a librettist who somehow (this is Oksanen’s first libretto) has managed to do something similar with dramatic action. This combination, sufficient in itself to make something extraordinary, has found fertile ground in pretty much every artistic partnership that has been drawn into realizing the project. The dramaturg and translator Aleksi Barrière has worked the crucial international milieu of the drama into a version of the libretto employing nine languages. The director, Simon Stone, and set designer, Chloe Lamford, have employed a rotating set to depict the collision between the world of the pupils and the wedding party as something that occurs quite literally: with each rotation of the set one of the rooms in the restaurant building transforms itself into one of the rooms in the school.

The soloists are all allotted different ranges and styles, ranging from the coloratura soprano of the mother-in-law, sung by Anu Komsi, to the mezzo of Tereza, the waitress, a former friend of the mother-in-law, sung by Jenny Carlstedt, and the Sami-inspired folk style of Tereza’s daughter, Markéta, one of the survivors, sung by Vilma Jää. Even the speaking styles of the other pupils – from the phlegmatic French of Iris to the manic Greek of Alexia and the melancholic German of Anton – contribute to the bewildering diversity of the opera’s surface. All springs from, and collapses back into, the primal conditions that set everything off. There are no weak links in the performance, and perhaps the most remarkable artistic presence on the night is that of the conductor, Clément Mao-Takacs. With a large orchestra, including four percussionists handling up to thirteen instruments each, the off-stage chorus and the soloists negotiating their way around the revolving set, the sense of control and balance emanating from the podium is astounding. Susanna Mälkki, who conducted the opera’s world premiere at the Aix-en-Provence Festival last year, will return to the podium when the opera arrives, three years later than planned, at Covent Garden next spring.

The most extraordinary feature of Innocence is that while its tragic content centers on the kind of event that most of us will never experience, the psychology and phenomenology of the opera feel so acutely contemporary that the listener becomes inexorably drawn into and implicated in the world of the tragedy. Even we, as it were, alive to the disappearing boundary between agency and passivity, action and reaction, forfeit our innocence. Even we, in the opera’s devastating fallout, must mimic its characters as they try and fail to let go, not to forgive, not to forget, just to remember how to breathe. Innocence is like our own world, in other words. Dark, fearful, definitely worth a visit.

Guy Dammann teaches philosophy and music at Uppsala University

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