A Reigning Opera Composer Writes of Trauma and ‘Innocence’

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — Susanna Malkki needed extra.

“Can you make the crescendo even bigger here?” she requested the London Symphony Orchestra as she performed it in a current rehearsal right here. “Don’t be afraid to go beyond the mezzo-piano on the page.”

They performed the passage once more, and this time the music swelled to a shock, one of many in probably the most anticipated new opera of the 12 months: Kaija Saariaho’s “Innocence,” which premieres Saturday on the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Commissioned by a bunch of main homes, it would journey within the coming years to the Finnish and Dutch nationwide operas, the Royal Opera in London, San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Nearly a decade within the making, and practically thwarted by the pandemic, “Innocence” is taut but immense: a labyrinth of thriller and reminiscence navigated at a breakneck tempo, with the forces of a full orchestra, a refrain and a solid of 13.

Its plot, so modern you might think about studying about it in tomorrow’s newspaper, recollects Saariaho’s 2006 opera “Adriana Mater” — and is gentle years from her most well-known stage work, the ethereally seductive “L’Amour de Loin” (2000), set in medieval instances. Like each of these, alongside along with her comparatively intimate, Noh-inspired “Only the Sound Remains,” from 2015, it has the makings of a singular contribution to the artwork type, on a scale hardly ever seen in new operas.

From left, an assistant on the manufacturing, the composer Kaija Saariaho and the conductor Susanna Malkki.Credit…Jean-Louis Fernandez

“I have a long career in commissioning,” Pierre Audi, the Aix Festival’s director, stated in an interview. “And this is one of the five greatest pieces that I’ve ever been involved with.”

It’s troublesome to summarize “Innocence,” and its inventive crew has been deliberately secretive in regards to the plot, which reveals itself like a fuzzy picture that progressively comes into focus. The motion alternates between a present-day wedding ceremony and a long-ago tragedy at a global college, with shocking connections between the 2 changing into an exploration of trauma and its permeating results.

The core of the opera is its multilingual libretto, by the Finnish author Sofi Oksanen with translations by Aleksi Barrière, Saariaho’s son and occasional collaborator. The textual content’s use of totally different languages — together with German, French, English, Greek, Finnish, Spanish and Czech — prompted Saariaho to make use of equally diversified vocal methods, similar to folks, Sprechstimme and lyrical, rhythmic speech. (The solid features a combination of singers and actors.)

Some of the languages had been new to Saariaho, and required time to study the contours of their phrases and the cadences of their sentences. One function was written particularly with the Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena in thoughts, for instance; earlier than setting to work, Saariaho met with Kozena in Paris to file her talking.

“Analyzing the languages I don’t speak was fascinating, but that’s why it took so long to compose this piece,” Saariaho, who spent a number of years creating “Innocence” and the higher half of 4 years writing it, stated earlier than a rehearsal.

During that point, a crew got here collectively. Saariaho requested Malkki — one of the world’s main interpreters of her music, and the dedicatee of this 12 months’s orchestral work “Vista” — to be the conductor.

“It was very important for her to know early on who would be doing it,” Malkki, who led “L’Amour de Loin” on the Met when it arrived there and performed the premiere of the 2006 oratorio “La Passion de Simone,” recalled. “Which of course I felt was an incredible gesture of trust.”

A rehearsal for the manufacturing, whose motion takes place largely inside a rotating building-size set piece.Credit…Jean-Louis Fernandez

More just lately, Saariaho was launched by Audi to the director Simon Stone, and felt that his temperament was “very well suited” to the opera. In a promotional interview for the competition, Stone spoke in regards to the work’s “beautiful exploration of the scars that we carry with us and the need to reopen wounds so we can heal them properly.”

“It’s got,” he added, “a kind of Chekhovian empathy for its characters.”

The premiere was deliberate for final 12 months, however was canceled through the pandemic’s spring surge. By summer season, nonetheless, the virus’s unfold had ebbed sufficient for the inventive crew and solid — although not the refrain or orchestra — to rehearse the opera in one thing of a bubble residency. The work was kind of staged, and the music was ready as a lot because it might be with solely a piano.

“In some ways we were all disappointed,” Kozena stated. “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 interval as “a stroke of luck.” Some premieres initially deliberate for the previous 12 months have been stranded, however “Innocence” was ready to return as quickly as potential. The earlier work on it even allowed Stone to be double booked for the 2021 competition, directing “Innocence” and Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” with comparatively little friction. Crucially, Audi stated, Saariaho’s opera will now have the ability to journey with out additional delay.

Simon Stone, left, on flooring, rehearsing his manufacturing, which is operating similtaneously his Aix staging of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”Credit…Jean-Louis Fernandez

On a current night, Stone was capable of attend solely the primary half of a rehearsal for “Innocence,” stopping by Kozena’s dressing room on the best way out for a fast word however in any other case wanting visibly happy and saying, “It really is a good show.”

“We couldn’t see him very much this year,” Kozena stated after he left. But probably the most urgent work, she added, was musical anyway. She had initially realized the opera with a piano discount, which inevitably lacked the layered textures of Saariaho’s rating.

“So now it’s a challenge,” she stated. “Hearing the full orchestra, it’s like, ‘Where’s my note?’”

A single word might be onerous to search out in Saariaho’s dense rating — a sound world haunted by a ghostly refrain and spectral thrives that vanish as instantly as they arrive. Like many of her works, the music isn’t really at relaxation and retains organically altering form, with subtly particular characterizations for every function and a fluidity that matches the libretto’s interwoven timelines and views.

“I don’t know why or how, but I kept coming back in my mind to ‘The Last Supper’ of Leonardo da Vinci,” Saariaho stated. “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 idée fixe for me.”

The characters have their very own musical signifiers — which suggests, Malkki stated, that “in the beginning, there’s a lot to take in, but then that is the element which makes it very understandable.”

Despite the rating’s general density, Kozena has discovered the vocal writing snug. Saariaho, she stated, “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 lastly within the pit, Malkki stated, she has continued to make new discoveries. And the extra time she spends with “Innocence,” the extra she is satisfied that it represents the long run of opera.

“It’s not escapism,” she stated. “It’s 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.”