American Premiere Review: Saariaho’s and Oksanen’s “Innocence”- a Milestone in the Dramatic Possibilities of Operatic Performance – San Francisco Opera, June 1, 2024

The opera “Innocence” begins with a wedding celebration in Helsinki, Finland, but the central story is about the continued impact of an event that took place ten years earlier. As the story unfolds, we learn that the bridgegroom’s older brother, in reaction to being bullied and humiliated by fellow students at a nearby international school, stole his father’s gun and shot ten students and a teacher to death.

The shooter, a minor at the time of the incident, has been rehabilitated and given a new identity. He is estranged from his family, who themselves are isolated from their former friends and the community.

The opera is performed in mulltiple languages. When the characters are speaking to one another they sing in English. When they express their private thoughts, they sing in the language of the character. Thus, the bridegroom, his mother and father, the priest, the waitress and the ghost of her daughter sing to themselves in Finnish and to each other in English.

Miles Mykkanen’s Tuomas (the Bridgegroom) and Lilian Farahani’s Stela (the Bride)

Michigan tenor Miles Mykkanen portrayed Tuomas, the bridegroom, who is the younger brother of the Shooter. Mykkanen, 2019 Metropolitan National Auditions prizewinner, himself is of Finnish heritage.

Mykkanen displayed an expressive lyric tenor, and was dramatically effective in the later acts after he reveals his foreknowledge of his brother’s intentions and failure to act to prevent the tragedy.

[Below; the bridegroom Tuomas (Miles Mykkanen, left) stands with hs bride Stela (Lilisn Farahani, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Tuomas’ bride Stella was sung by Iranian-Dutch soprano Lillian Farahani. Stela, who met Tuomas in Bucharest, sings in both the character’s native Romanian and English.

The one member of the wedding party who performed in the 2021 world premiere In Aix-en-Provence, Farahani, singing with a resplendent lyric coloratura, created a vivid portrait of a woman ready to embrace her new husband and his family and forgive whatever happened in the past.

Ruxandra Donose’s Tereza (the Waitress) and Vilma Jää’s Marketa (Tereza’s daughter

The plot’s first turning point (occurring before the opera begins) is the replacement of an ill member of the wedding banquet’s catering staff by a Waitress played by Romanian mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose. A superb singing actress, Donose vividly portrayed a deeply hurt woman consumed by her anger at losing her daughter Marketa to the elder son of the family she has been called upon to serve.

As Tereza’s rage surfaces, she destroys the wedding cake in front of the shocked wedding party, unleashing the emotions ofTuomas, his parents and his bride.

This is the fifth performance by Donose I have attended and the fourth I have reviewed, preceded by Sesto in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” in 2002 at San Francisco Opera and the roles of Veronica Quaife [Review: Dissecting “The Fly” – the American Premiere of Shore’s Opera, Los Angeles Opera, September 7, 2008], Dorabella [Review: Stylish Production, Fine Cast for “Cosi fan Tutte” – Los Angeles Opera, September 18, 2011] and Carmen [Review: Ruxandra Donose, Adam Diegel Are Dramatically Convincing in Calixto Bielto’s Sexy, Edgy “Carmen” – English National Opera, November 21, 2012] .

See also my interview with Donose at Mezzo Mastery – An Interview with Ruxandra Donose .

[Below: Tereza, the Waitress (Ruzandra Donoze, right) embraces the apparition of her slain daughter, Marketa, who was killed ten years prior in a school shooting by the brother of the bridegroom, whose wedding Tereza is catering; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Tereza’s deep hurt is manifested in the appearance of the ghost of her daughter, Marketa, who was played with stunning effect by Finnish composer and folk singer Vilma Jää. Marketa’s ghost’s vocal line includes the eerie sounds of traditional Finno-Ugric herding calls. Marketa’s beyond the grave message to her mother was to move on past the tragedy that took Marketa’s life.

Rod Gilfry’s Henrik (the Groom’s Father), Claire de Sévignés Patricia (the Groom’s Mother) and Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Priest

California baritone Rod Gilfry performed the role of the Father, Henrik, who seeks to maintain the family’s dignity in the face of his community’s universal disapproval. Gilfry’s Henrik unsuccessfully tries to avert the disaster that Donose’s Waitress was to create.

A consummate singing actor, Gilfry has been prominent, both as a voice teacher and a performer in a range of vocal projects. These include musicals [Review: Deborah Voigt, Rod Gilfry Romp in Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 12, 2011] and operatic rarities [Review: Zajick is Victor in “Maid of Orleans” – San Francisco Opera, June 18, 2006].

GIlfry has created principal roles in 13 operatic world premieres, two of which I attended – World Premiere Review: Jake Heggie’s Celestial Transformation of “It’s a Wonderful Life” – Houston Grand Opera, December 2, 2016 and World Premiere Review: Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice” at the Los Angeles Opera, February 1, 2020,

[Below: Henrik (Rod Gilfry, right) tries to calm his unsettled wife, Patricia (Claire de Sévigné, left)]

Canadian soprano Claire de Sévigné enlisted her attractive lyric coloratura voice in the role of Patricia, the bridegroom’s mother.

I previously had praised de Sévigné’s performances as the Queen of the Night [Review: Mizrahi’s Charming “Magic Flute” Production Opens OTSL 2014 Season – St Louis, May 24, 2014] and Haydn’s Angelica [Review: Zurich Opera Young Artists Sparkle as Jetske Mijnssen Reinvents Haydn’s “Orlando Paladino” – Theater Winterthur, May 7, 2016

As a sign of the family’s estrangement from its community, only one guest was present to celebrate Tuomas’ and Stela’s wedding, an old priest played by Icelandic bass-baritone Kristinn Sigmundsson. The priest. who had recognized the dangerous path the family’s errant son was taking prior to the shooting incident, continues to regret having done nothing at the time.

A familiar presence to San Francisco Opera audiences for over a decade and a half, Sigmundsson created durable portraits of such operatic characters as King Heinrich [Review: A Musically, Visually Satisfying “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 2023], Vodnik [Review: “Rusalka”- Beautiful Singing, Insightful Drama – An Opera “Not to be Missed” – San Francisco Opera, June 16, 2019] and Baron Ochs [Review: San Francisco Opera – A Center for “Rosenkavalier” Excellence: June 24, 2007].

[Below: the Priest (Kristinn Signmundsson, standing) observes the emotional breakdown of the bridgegroom (Miles Mykkanen, kneeling); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Julie Hega’s Iris, Lucy Shelton’s Cecilia. Beate Mordals’ Lilly, Rowan Kievits’ Anton, Camilo Delgado Diaz’ Jeronimo, and Marina Dumont’s Alexia

French contralto Julie Hera performed the role of the surviving student Iris. Having befriended the Shooter, she defended him against his bullying classmates. We learn that she joined the Shooter and his brother Tuomas in a gravel pit where he practiced using his father’s stolen gun. Vocally secure, Hega’s physical onstage movements suggested a person living in her own world.

[Below: Julie Hega as Surviving Student Iris; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Dutch actor and model Rowan Kiewits, who appears with the Dutch National Opera, performed the role of German student Anton, who exhibits a neurological disorder such as Tourette’s. Kievits proved to be a convincing actor.

[Below: Surviving students Anton (Rowan Kievits, left), and Lilly (Beate Mordais, center) and surviving teacher Cecilia (Lucy Shelton, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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Making her San Francisco Opera debut as the surviving Finnish teacher Cecilia was California soprano Lucy Shelton, who turned 80 in Feburary 2024. She gave a powerful performance, both vocally and dramatically.

Norwegian coloratura soprano Beate Mordal was Lilly, Colombian temor Camilo Delgado Diaz was Jeronimo and French soprano Marina Dumont was Alexia. All three were impressive.

[Below: Students Jeronimo (Camilo Delgado Diaz, left) and Alexia (Marina Dumont,right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

 

Actors in non-singing roles portrayed other students. These were California actors Oksana Barrios, Jordan Covington, Victoria Fong, Sam Hannum, Jalen Justice, Rachael Richman, Kevin Walton and Pennsylvania actor Brian Soutner.

Composer Kaija Saariaho and Librettist Sofi Oksanen

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho was able to appreciate the international approbation that came from the 2021 world premiere of her final opera, “Innocence”. She died at the beginning of June 2023.

Her inspiration for the opera was, tragically, a Finnish school shooting. She collaborated with Finnish novelist, playwright and librettist Sofi Oksanen.

[Below: Composer Kaija Saariaho; edited image, based on a publicity photograph]

Oksanen’s original libretto (in Finnish) was translated into multiple languages by dramaturg Aleksi Barriere. The creative team effectively presented a sobering story of a the continued impact of the school shooting on the shooter’s family and community ten years after the event. The multiple languages suggest the universality of the problem.

[Below: Author and librettist Sofi Oksanen; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]

Maestro Clément Mao-Takacs and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

The conductor, Maestro Clément Mao-Takacs, is a specialist in Saariaho’s works. Mao-Takacs led the significantly expanded San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus (chorus director John Keene) in an impressive performance of Saariaho’s impactful music.

The orchestra’s vastly augmented percussion section and the use of such specialized instruments as bass clarinet and contrabassoon were enlisted for Saariaho’s sonically vibrant score.

[Below: Maestro Clément Mao-Takacs; edited image of a Vasco Pretobranco photograph.]

Director Simon Stone’s Production and Designer Chloe Lamford’s Set

Revival director Louise Bakker supervised the mounting of Australian director Simon Stone’s brilliant production.

Stone, making full use of set designer Chloe Lamford’s extraordinary two story rotating set on which the events of the present and of ten years prior are relived.

[Below: Director Simon Stone; edited image of a publicity photograph, from the Los Angeles Opera.]

A feature of his production was the constantly changing appearance of various rooms. As the opera’s focus shifted back and forth from the present day to the decade prior, one group of rooms in the rotating building come into view, while others grow dark. As rooms grow dark, they are redressed and refurnished out of the sight and hearing of the audience, in an astonishingly effective triumph of stagecraft.

[Below: one of the views of Chloe Lamford’s rotating sets, showing members of the wedding party; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy stof the San Francisco Opera.]

[Below: a second view of Chloe Lamford’s rotating set, the rooms above showing students at the international school in classes ten years earlier; the lower level showing the banquet room and kitchen; edited image, absed on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Recommendation

I enthusiastically recommend San Francisco Opera’s mounting of Simon Stone’s production of Saariaho’s “Innocence” to opera-goers who wish to experience a skillfully performed, highly dramatic presentation of subject matter of contemporary importance.