Past and present collide: Saariaho, ‘Innocence’, Royal Opera House, London

Perhaps the most compelling testament to the impact of ‘Innocence’ is that I’ve thought about little else since the curtain fell. Knowing I would want to write about it, I’ve felt the intricacies of the piece turning round in my mind, dovetailing with each other, not unlike the interlocking 3D jigsaw of a set that so brilliantly contained the action.

First, a couple of content warnings. This opera revolves around a violent tragedy, which is not described in detail in the ROH publicity, but is freely available in the opera synopsis, and mentioned upfront in most of the review headlines I’ve seen. I will need to talk about the nature of the tragedy below, so please pause here and investigate first if you would prefer.

There’s also no doubt that the work is more powerful, the less you know: not because of cheap shock tactics, but because the opera constantly challenges you to re-think certain conclusions you may have drawn. Both the moral and dramatic effects of this gain from the unexpected ways they emerge.

I went into the performance knowing the broad setting of the story and how it would be told, but I avoided the full synopsis. As such, I experienced certain key plot developments ‘cold’. With this in mind, I’ve tried to walk the same tightrope in the rest of this piece: discuss the craft in full, but spoil as little of the action as possible. If you would prefer to know absolutely nothing, stop reading here (but please come back after you’ve seen it).

I believe the work to be multi-layered and intricate enough to provoke a wide range of reactions and conclusions. So, I’ve deliberately avoided reading other reviews, or the full programme book, before setting down my thoughts. (I’m now eager to catch up with them!) But any music(ologic)al errors or memory blips are mine alone.


Finland, the present day: a wedding. Tuomas is marrying Stela, a woman he met while on holiday in Romania. Stela seems as happy to be moving to a ‘safer’ country as she is about the marriage. The event itself is somewhat low-key: very few attendees, and the groom’s parents, Patricia and Henrik, are on edge, quietly discussing whether they should have told Stela about a tragedy in the family’s past.

Also Finland, 10 years previously. We witness the build-up to, and aftermath of, a school shooting.  Victims, both physical and psychological, recall and reply their involvement, allowing us to form a picture in our minds of the horrific event.

An unexpected change of arrangements at the wedding brings the connection between the two timelines out into the open, and forces the characters to reckon with the history they’d tried to bury.

The set is wholly contained within a vast cuboid on a rotating platform. It’s a public building of some kind: as the action starts and the characters begin to move in and around it, locations become more obvious: there’s a kitchen, there’s a classroom. Then more intricacies emerge and rooms double up – their ‘roles’ change depending on which timeline is ‘active’ and they move between the narratives, often with darkly ironic results. For example, we see a toilet block, where students flee and hide from the shooter in the ‘past’ narrative; but in the present, this morphs into the wedding venue Gents, the scene of a bitter confrontation, this time verbal, between father and son. The function room laid out for the wedding breakfast is ‘echoed’ in the students’ refectory. (The attention to detail here suggests frenetic, forensic activity behind the scenes, just out of sight. For example, during one scene, a wall became stained with blood: when the same space rotated round again, and the room had shifted narratives, the blood had gone.)

This fluid use of a confined space conveys both claustrophobia and entrapment, while also allowing past characters the freedom to invade, haunt and ultimately impact the present. It’s a brilliantly effective representation of the stranglehold memories can have on people, an insurmountable barrier to their moving on.

The score and libretto follow through on this tension. Kaija Saariaho’s music is soundtrack-sensitive: not without tender moments, especially near the start (Henrik’s attempt to make light conversation at the wedding, Stela’s enthusiasm for the move), it fully commits to building a sense of dread, with slow builds, occasional releases and false climaxes. However, there is something ‘icy’ about this sympathetic, yet dissonant and detached, treatment which rules out any hint of exploitation or manipulation. Instead, we are made to feel – in our small, small way – a hint of the panic and bewilderment enacted on stage. (It’s interesting to compare this with the opera ‘Blue’, also about a shooting tragedy and currently playing at ENO. I also found ‘Blue’ extremely affecting, but its musical approach – righteous, rich with gospel/blues – results in a deeply soulful experience which provokes overwhelming sadness and regret. But ‘Innocence’ wants to make you afraid.)

Saariaho also uses an array of sonic effects and musical techniques to enhance the storytelling. For example, one character – broken by the tragedy – sings almost as if the words are being dragged out of them: the agony of remembrance. At one point, the stage rotation slowed down, and they slowed down their delivery to match, like a record on a turntable switched off mid-play. Saariaho also has one of the victims, popular for their ability to make up and improvise songs, performed in a folksong style: they sound utterly arresting and, at a stroke, they’re fleshed out to a more appropriate level for the important role they later assume. (Vilma Jää is utterly compelling in the part.)

Broadly, the students caught up in the tragedy half-speak half-sing their parts: on one level this makes their experience brutally direct, but it also suggested to me that they never had the chance to become fully-formed, either not surviving, or not being able to get past the incident. By contrast, the roles are mostly sung by the adults in the wedding narrative. (Sandrine Piau and Christopher Purves, as Patricia and Henrik, are the operatic anchors here, tempering their powerful voices with just the right nuances of agitation and anguish.) It’s yet another way of letting the music tell us exactly where we are in the story and how we should instinctively react, without dragging the libretto into exposition.

The multiple languages used throughout are an eloquent touch – it’s an international school, and so the tragedy becomes universal – this could happen anywhere; Finland is no ‘safer’ than Romania. The suggestion is even more potent given that ‘Innocence’ is a co-production between five opera houses across five countries.

I feel this universality is part of what makes the piece so important. While the styles are very different, I couldn’t help thinking briefly of Sir George Benjamin’s operas, especially ‘Written on Skin’. The similarities are superficial, cosmetic: a taut running time with no interval, two separate narrative strands, unrelenting tension. But Benjamin seems to pursue a timelessness in his work, with ‘Written on Skin’ running its medieval story against a supernatural framework (and follow-up ‘Lessons in Love and Violence’ dealing with the fate of Edward II). ‘Innocence’, however, could not be more ‘timeful’: it points directly to the here and how. 

I came away convinced that this is one of the most perfectly-realised works for the stage that I’ve seen. It’s as if composer (Saariaho), librettist (Sofi Oksanen), director (Simon Stone) and set designer (Chloe Lamford) jointly possessed a hive mind. One can easily imagine how a film or novel might treat the material, using flashbacks, or alternating chapters, say, to delineate past and present. ‘Innocence’ allows us to see – and hear – everything playing out in parallel, with total clarity.

It’s state-of-the-art storytelling, drawing on every skill – musical, vocal, dramatic, visual – that opera provides.


At the time of writing, there are three performances remaining of ‘Innocence’: 26 April, 3 & 4 May 2023. Read more and book on the Royal Opera House website.

All press photos used copyright Tristam Kenton.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s