Not quite as perfect as I remembered it but still pretty good. That’s my revised – no, lightly tweaked – opinion after a second viewing of Innocence, the opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho that was the hit of the 2021 Aix-en-Provence Festival.

© ROH | Tristram Kenton

It’s a powerful work that borrows its starting premise from Thomas Vinterberg’s harrowing family drama Festen but proceeds to push it in altogether more extreme directions. Unlike its Danish forebear, Innocence is concerned not with memories of child abuse but with the slaughter of ten pupils and a teacher during a school killing spree ten years earlier. It takes place at a wedding where the bridegroom’s father (Christopher Purves) is confronted by a waitress (Jenny Carlstedt) whose daughter was one of the slain. When she recognises the host as the killer’s father, and the groom as his brother, skeletons begin tumbling from cupboards.

Throughout its 100-minute duration, Saariaho’s opera meditates on the invisible victims of atrocities: those left behind. The action on Chloe Lamford’s two-storey set shifts between past and present as the wedding-day drama evokes resurrected memories of suffering. Not that the latter have ever been forgotten by the shell-shocked survivors. As one shattered young man declares, “I can’t be in places where my phone has to be switched off”.

Lucy Shelton (Teacher) and students
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Saariaho’s orchestral voice is urgent and intense. She eschews any temptation to slip into cinema-style illustration when tackling the narrative-heavy scenario but instead weaves an intricate tapestry of moods and colours that drift, at some points like sprinkled powder, at others in heavy dramatic clumps, between emotional states. It is dreamlike, often opulent and always tangy, and was exquisitely articulated by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Susanna Mälkki.

Markus Nykänen (Bridegroom), Lilian Farahani (Bride) and Jenny Carlstedt (Waitress)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

With committed contributions from Lucy Shelton as a retired teacher who witnessed the crime and Sandrine Piau as the bridegroom’s mother, this ensemble piece is a true company achievement. All but a handful of singers have been with the production since its inception; indeed, of the principals only Carlstedt (who joined the company for its Helsinki run) and Purves are new to their roles. However, as before it falls to Vilma Jää to give the opera its beating heart – ironically so, since she plays a ghost – when the young Finnish chanteuse punctuates her hypnotic vocal lines as the Waitress’s dead daughter Markéta with subtle yelps and yodels, tics that remove her from the living world and seem to place her somewhere other.

Vilma Jää (Markéta) and Jenny Carlstedt (Waitress)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Time to address my reservations about the opera. It is potent yet concise, the composer’s hand always apparent, always assured yet never over-egged, but on this second hearing I felt queasy about some aspects of Sofi Oksanen’s libretto. Her decision to jump between a dozen languages may have been intended as a statement about the ubiquity of human frailty but it ends up being an alienating device that emphasises theatricality at the expense of immersion. Further down the Brechtian trail, Oksanen’s text falls too easily into lecture mode, sometimes even hectoring as she browbeats her audience with a superfluous “guns are bad” message and the inevitable plea that shooters are victims too.

Simon Stone’s direction is beautifully focused and Bamford’s bleak, ever-restless revolve is used to fine effect, but was it wise to place the school and the wedding reception within what appears to be the same building? Has the school been closed post-ordeal and converted into a restaurant or is such a reading unduly literal? It’s hard to tell. We learn from a programme note that it was Stone’s idea to combine the two locations but to the casual eye it only serves to push coincidence to its limit, given the family’s terrible history with the place plus the fact that the still-traumatised Waitress has agreed to work there as well.

Sandrine Piau (Mother-in-Law), Jenny Carlstedt (Waitress) and Vilma Jää (Markéta)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The opera’s dénouement is its apogee: a genuinely shocking twist, narratively unexpected and superbly written, that allows the bride and groom (Lilian Farahani and Markus Nykänen) to share a scene of blinding drama. Meanwhile the coda, in which the ghostly Markéta begs her living mother to just let her go, has an emotional tug to die for. Surrender to Saariaho’s spell and she will wrench your heart. A new opera of great power, Innocence is a pleasure that's anything but guilty.