Review: San Francisco Opera’s powerful ‘Innocence’ speaks to today’s violent times  

L-R, Rowan Kievits, Beate Mordal, Lucy Shelton, Marina Dumont, Vilma Jää, Camilo Delgado Díaz and Julie Hega play victims of gun violence at an international school in "Innocence." (Courtesy Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

Making its American premiere on June 1 at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera’s “Innocence” is a powerful new work by late Finnish contemporary composer Kaija Saariaho.

San Francisco Opera’s “Innocence” by Kaija Saariaho, Sofi Oksanen and Aleksi Barrière has two settings, an international school and a wedding, depicted in an effective cube design by Chloe Lamford. Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera) 

A major plot point is not revealed until well into the performance: a mass shooting at an international school in the composer’s native Finland. (How strange but not surprising that we have an opera about gun violence before effective gun control laws.)

The work dives into questions of guilt and innocence, grief and survival.  Co-commissioned by San Francisco Opera and several European opera houses, “Innocence” opens at a wedding banquet, but Saariaho’s dark, percussive music signals that it is not a joyous occasion.

Tereza (Ruxandra Donose), waitress at the banquet, has recognized the groom to be the brother of a student who killed a number of students and their teacher 10 years before. Among the victims is her daughter Markéta (Vilma Jää). The bride (Lilian Farahani) doesn’t know about it, and the groom’s family wants to keep it from her.

According to program notes, Saariaho got the idea for “Innocence” from Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco “The Last Supper,” wanting to create a complex work with multiple figures whose back stories aren’t immediately known.

L-R, Vilma Jää and Ruxandra Donose stand out as daughter and mother in “Innocence” by Kaija Saariaho, Sofi Oksanen and Aleksi Barrière. (Courtesy Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

The opera has 13 characters. Six in the wedding party sing their roles; the shooting victims speak rather than sing. Translator-dramaturg Aleksi Barrière and librettist Sofi Oksanen have them speaking in nine languages, as if to underline distance between them.

The orchestra, led by French conductor Clément Mao-Takacs, brings all the elements, including the excellent offstage chorus, together in a radiant performance. Saariaho’s score is bold and explosive, describing not so much individual characters, but the mood of shock and grief that runs through the 140-minute production.

Revival director Louise Bakker (Simon Stone helmed the 2021 world premiere in Aix-en-Provence) maintains detailed and succinct action; and Chloe Lamford’s revolving, glassed-in two-tiered set (which juxtaposes stark schoolrooms and wedding festivities) brings the drama home.

Romanian soprano Donose is a dramatic standout as waitress and mother Tereza; Finnish soprano Jää as her daughter, appearing as a tabletop ghost who eerily chants ancient folk refrains, clinches the sense of terror.

The entire cast is excellent: Miles Mykkanen as the groom, Rod Gilfrey as the groom’s father, Claire de Sévigné as the groom’s mother and Kristinn Sigmundsson as the priest all convincingly reveal their characters’ hidden guilt. American soprano Lucy Shelton as the teacher powers into play her reflections on the broken lives that surround her, and French soprano Julie Hega as one of the students impresses with her revelations of troubling behavior she has seen among classmates.

“Innocence” delivers no catharsis, fear and guilt don’t disappear, and there are no promises that broken lives will mend. Rather, it evokes a sense of urgency that speaks to our time.

L-R, Miles Mykkanen as the groom, Kristinn Sigmundsson as the priest, Lilian Farahani as the bride, and Rod Gilfry and Claire de Sévigné as the groom’s parents are excellent in San Francisco Opera’s “Innocence.” (Courtesy Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

San Francisco Opera’s “Innocence” continues at 7:30 p.m. June 7, June 12, June 18 and June 21 and 2 p.m. June 16 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. For tickets ($26-$426; $27.50 for June 12 livestream), call (415) 864-3330 or visit 

The post Review: San Francisco Opera’s powerful ‘Innocence’ speaks to today’s violent times   appeared first on Local News Matters.

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