A concert performance - really semi-staged, with minimal props and no scenery - of this opera by the late Kaija Saariaho is this week's San Francisco Symphony program. I attended the first performance last night. EPS conducted, and the production was stage directed by Peter Sellars, who gave an evocative, impressionistic pre-concert talk about the intangible aesthetics of the work. Both of them did the same jobs for the original production in Paris in 2006.
The opera has two acts, it has four characters, and it lasts somewhat over two hours. Adriana is a young woman who rebuffs the advances of a crude and uncouth man. He becomes a soldier in the civil war that erupts in their unnamed Balkan country, forces his way into her house on a military pretext, and rapes her. To the dismay of her elder sister, she decides to keep the resulting pregnancy, but wonders what kind of child will result from the mixture of her blood and his.
Seventeen years pass during intermission. Adriana's son learns his origins from somewhere else, and is furious both about this news and with his mother and aunt for having hidden it from him. He vows to track down and kill the monster who sired him. To her sister's horror, Adriana doesn't try to stop him. "If he is meant to kill him, he will kill him," she says. What she means by this becomes clear when her son finds the man, now blind, sick, repentant, and longing only for death. The son keeps threatening to kill him, but he can't do it. When he reports this to his mother, she says, "If you were really his son" (as opposed to her own), "you would have killed him," and all three - the young man, his mother and aunt - have a big hug.
And so this opera which is all about violence turns out at the end to be a call for peace and reconciliation. I think that's the best term: they don't forgive the man, but they're reconciled to his existence.
It was staged by placing four square elevated platforms irregularly around the stage, two in front sticking out into the audience seating and two by the side, stage left. The singers stand on various different ones and interact by walking between them, carrying ipads with their musical parts. The white surfaces are bathed in various colored lights. A blackout covers the rape scene, but the orchestra screams a lot. The text, by Lebanese-born French author Amin Maalouf, is in French, not that it's easy to tell from the murky singing. Supertitles in English are helpful but aren't adequate to cope with some of the overlapping vocal lines.
The only cast member whose work I knew was Nicholas Phan as the son, but his gorgeous tenor was fractured by the fury that suffuses the part. Mezzo Fleur Barron as Adriana and soprano Axelle Fanyo as her sister were hard to tell apart vocally and tended to get buried beneath the accompaniment. Christopher Purves as the man gave a powerful baritone, particularly in act 2.
Saariaho's scoring is dark, brooding, and churning, but colorful and interesting. The sonic idiom resembles spectralism, but it has none of the vast sheeting quality of that musical style. While it's not my preferred musical character, I found it often effective and captivating, and even two hours of it was almost not too much. As often in opera, I kept wishing the singers would shush so that I could hear the music better. Only at a few points do the vocal lines really meld with the orchestral ones in powerful drama, which is what I really want to hear in opera. The inspiration started to run out of steam in act 2 when the orchestra responds too closely to the text. Every time the son calls his father a monster, the orchestra replies by going bleargha bleargha. We could have done without that.
Still, though, I'm glad I heard this: effective drama with interestingly crafted music by a composer whose idiom I'm learning to appreciate. So I am minded to take the earnest recommendation I've received and attend Saariaho's Innocence from SF Opera next spring, despite - from what happened last time I went - the avalanche of subsequent phone calls it will get me from the Opera entreating me to subscribe.