The big London companies gave two UK premières in the space of a week, both dealing with the subject of teenagers being shot dead. Kaija Saariaho and Sofi Oksanen’s new opera Innocence was premièred at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2021 and comes to the Royal Opera in exactly the same production by Simon Stone, the Australian director responsible for that lockdown favourite The Dig as well as a shattering staging (in Munich, in 2019) of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt.
So Innocence was never likely to pull its punches. Chloe Lamford’s set – a brightly lit modernist structure that revolves as the plot moves between present and (traumatic) past – is simultaneously bold and simple. It needs to be, because in telling a story spread across a decade from the perspectives of some 13 distinctly drawn characters, Saariaho and her librettist have set themselves a formidable challenge. On first viewing, I’d say they’ve pulled it off, and with compelling power. We’re at a wedding reception in contemporary Finland: inevitably, you think Festen; you think Melancholia. You know that something monstrous is going to surface, and Innocence explores that something with terrible, tender, unflinching care. So careful, in fact, are Saariaho and Oksanen to probe the full complexity of the story – to allow every character their humanity and their due share of innocence and culpability – that it’s almost painful to experience. Innocence is scar tissue being probed until the blood starts to seep; a series of elastoplasts being pulled off very slowly indeed. And yet – this being Saariaho – it sounds utterly beguiling: easing you in, lulling you with its shimmering melancholy and shifting colours, until suddenly the horror is real and you realise that you’re being propelled forwards at a frightening pace.