live review opera

kaija saariaho – innocence (at the royal opera house, april 17)

‘Innocence’ is an opera about a school shooting.

‘Innocence’ is an opera about a school shooting. Ten years on, the bullets silently clip the corners of every boxed room. Simon Stone and Chloe Lamford’s revolving set is absorbingly clinical. The show opens with a wedding between the brother of the murderer and his wife. Their introductions are marked by the formulas of ceremony: gum-baring joy and self-deprecating speeches. The wife does not know that she is marrying into a family containing the killer of ten students and one teacher. 

As the truth percolates, the music sharpens a wretched fatalism behind the denial – the parents’ fragile performativity and the obliviousness and repudiation of bride and groom. In its own way, the orchestra is the only reliable narrator: it doesn’t massage the lies of the family but is tender enough to forgive their indiscretions. Haplessness coils every moment.

In the shooting scenes, we don’t hear cracking shots; there’s no novel, shoulder-popping scream; we don’t even see the one holding the gun. We see small figures behind glass ducking, flailing, twitching, surrendering in silence. An older teacher says ‘knowledge was useless’ after the tragedy. Her voice slides and cracks when she yelps of trying to get drunk that night, only to look at old essays of the killer to decipher his syntax. She inevitably finds unusual wordplay and brutal sentiments. Her music shuffles with a back-broken trudge that we imagine loops the rest of her days.

In not anchoring itself to a single narrative, ‘Innocence’ is especially terrifying. Its dialogue is appropriately hollow because each mundane interaction is merely a side-lining of the flat-road, dead-endedness of tragedy. The music, in fact, is almost incidental – I think it works.

The waiter at the wedding was called up because her colleague was ill. Her daughter, Marketa, was one of the eleven murdered and now survives as a neutral and candid wraith across the stage. Marketa’s voice, that of Vilma Jää, is disturbingly alive: willowy, high. It borrows from Finnish cow herding techniques.

The ghost’s mother leads the show into truth. There’s a splinter of hope at the end.

When I stepped out the doors, a man re-enacted the bel canto howls for the wife and husband with his friend: Stela, Stela, Stelaaaaa…Toumas, Touuuuuumas. The person behind me was speaking to her partner about how the show “didn’t shy away from anything.” Two short men, around 20 years old and dressed in blazers, walked with two women a head taller than them. One of the men said, “I’ve booked a table, so I don’t see why getting in would be a problem.”

Royal Opera House, to May 4; Tickets start at £6.

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