The setting is a country at war in the present day. Adriana is raped by Tsargo, a man from her local community, and falls pregnant. She has a son – Yonas – and brings him up, tormented by whether his behaviour will be determined by the blood of his rapist father, or by herself – his innocent mother. When Yonas learns the truth of his conception he vows to kill his father. The moment of truth comes when Tsargo eventually returns to town at the end of the war.
The time is the present, in a country about to be at war. Tsargo, a young drunk man attempts to speak with the young woman Adriana. He reminds her that they once danced together but she rebuffs him. Adriana’s sister, Refka, sees all of this and reproaches Adriana for even speaking to him. A dream sequence begins as night falls, where Tsargo is ready to go dancing with Adriana. Adriana touches Tsargo and he turns into a bottle, which she drops and breaks. Adriana wakes in the dream and in reality, and a humiliated Tsargo rushes off uttering threats. In the next scene Tsargo, dressed as a soldier and carrying a gun knocks on Adriana’s door, claiming to need to go onto the roof to see the enemy. She snubs him as before. He then forces his way in, and we deduce that Adriana is raped. In Scene 3 Adriana is pregnant and argues with her sister, who condemns her for having the child. The night before Refka had dreamt of her own worries about the unborn child, and also of Adriana’s own fears – will the child resemble Cain or Abel?
Seventeen years later, Adriana’s son Yonas finds out that his father did not in fact die heroically as he had been told by his family. He is furious and Adriana tries to explain that she would have told him when he was old enough to deal with the truth. This does not hold back his anger, and he swears to kill his rapist father. Another dream sequence ensues where Yonas kills his whole family, finally turning his weapon on himself. In the next scene, Refka looks for Adriana, but finds Yonas instead. He chastises her for having lied to him about his father. When Adriana enters Refka tells them that Tsargo is in the country. With this, Yonas charges off vowing to kill him. Refka wants to stop him but Adriana says “If he is meant to kill him, then he will kill him”. Yonas soon finds Tsargo, who admits his identity and what he has done. Yonas tells him that he intends to kill him, but asks to see him turn around. It is soon obvious that Tsargo is blind, and with this Yonas flees unable to carry out his task.
In the final scene all four characters are separate on stage, consumed with their own troubles. Yonas asks for forgiveness from his mother for not having killed his father. At this point Adriana knows that Yonas is her son, because he has not killed, like his father did. “We are not avenged” she tells her son, “but we are saved”.
Mezzo Patricia Bardon has the voice to project the emotional range of the suite of songs from Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's opera Adriana Mater with deceptive ease. This was music that was almost Mahlerian in its soundworld, which began with a powerful sense of foreboding and included a modern Magnificat...
Keith Bruce, heraldscotland.com, 08/10/2012
the quality of Saariaho’s music is, as expected, very high, with sonorities that consistently are interestingly calibrated. There is often a sustained instrumental background that undergoes continuous but subtle change. From it individual instruments emerge, sometimes in counterpoint with the vocal line. The general impression is of a prevailingly slow tempo, but the music can become quite forceful, particularly in orchestral interludes, with angry brass and thumping timpani. The appearance of Yonas in Act 2 is matched with music that captures his youthful energy.
George Loomis, Musical America.com, 08/08/2008
'The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's new opera, here given a concert performance, inhabits a world where bad dreams impinge on reality until the two are all but indistinguishable. It's an opera about violation. A woman is raped in time of war; her rapist has been dehumanised by that war. But the real drama lies with the child she then bears, and the secret she keeps from him. On learning the truth, the boy vows to kill the man responsible for his violent conception. But will he? ...Saariaho's great washes of sound are all about sustained sonorities – rhythm and counterpoint are sparingly used. The very texture seems to weep, so awash is it with glissandi, and, most effective, a wordless amplified chorus provides a wailing backdrop. ..The seeds of the real- world drama germinate in Act II, with confrontations between mother and son, son and father. But the father's now blind and the son can't kill him. "He deserved to die," says the mother, "but you did not deserve to kill." In the postlude, Saariaho's orchestra finds focus and consonance in a sublime melody for cellos.'
Edward Seckerson, The Independent, 30/04/2008
'Adriana Mater ("The Mother Adriana") is the latest of the music-theatre works by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho to visit the Barbican. The previous two, seen in 2002 and 2007, showed a composer most at home with slow, melancholy narratives of desire or spiritual aspiration struggling against fate. The realistic hurly-burly of the world was shut out of these pieces, and we heard the inner life of the characters, buoyed up on the sea of Saariaho's slow-moving, lustrously beautiful, deeply melancholy music.
Adriana Mater, on the face of it, seems very different. We're in a contemporary war-zone, where the harsh realities of hunger, guns and violence have to be centre-stage.At the beginning we see a young woman, Adriana, attempting to rebuff the unwanted attentions of Tsargo. He once danced with her, and now feels he has some claim on her attention.
She rebuffs him, but, as always in war, it's the armed man who calls the shots, and he rapes her.
Years pass, Tsargo vanishes, the war ends, and Adriana bears a son, Yonas, the result of that "terrible night that cannot be erased". Eventually Yonas discovers the secret of his father, and swears vengeance on him.
Much of what we hear in Saariaho's score is familiar. The music unfolds with meditative slowness, deep bass notes overlain with circling figures that repeat like a mantra. The rich harmonies are given a melancholy blur by sighing micro-tones, and arabesques of keening melody float up to the music's glistening surface and then subside.
Less familiar is the sharp urgency Saariaho gives to these devices, and at times the music rises to a furious intensity.
But what makes the piece so moving is the way Amin Maalouf's libretto anchors the music's mythic breadth in real human dilemmas. "Yes, I am sure," says Adriana at one point to her sister, about her decision to keep the baby. But then a moment later she admits, "No, I am sure about nothing."
Yonas raises his hand to kill his father, but when he sees his blindness, he cannot bring himself to strike the blow. He sees this as weakness, but his mother knows better. "We are not avenged, we are saved," she sings, and the music lends its glow to this moment of illumination.
The performances were outstanding, above all Monica Groop as Adriana. She brought a moral grandeur to this fallible, all-too-human creature.'
Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph, 29/04/2008
Saariaho's lines are not only expressive and singable but immaculately clear.
Richard Morrison, The Times, 28/04/2008
Adriana Mater is still involving. It is full of wonderful ideas, many of which well up from the saturated orchestral textures around the vocal lines.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 28/04/2008
...her mix of amplified and orchestral sounds makes her music all the more atmospheric, shimmering and sensuous, coloured here by low woodwind, two pianos and harp, and wordless chorus.
Fiona Maddocks, The Evening Standard, 25/04/2008
Presented in seven tableaux, the action has the elemental quality of Greek tragedy (though it is not tragedy), and, like such drama, there is a limit on the number of characters, and a huge role for a commenting, or rather echoing, chorus, invisible and mostly wordless. They are ‘spatialised’ round the immense house by Ircam. The piece is not, I think, electronic in any other sense, but this uncanny, enveloping use of the chorus sets it apart from most operas…
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times, 09/04/2006
Her music, though not tonal in the traditional sense, is full of atmosphere and rich colors. She uses her electronic wizardry only for the -- invisible -- chorus: Its interjections, mostly textless vowels, reach our ears via an array of loudspeakers at both sides of the stage.
Jorg Von Uthmann, Bloomberg.com, 06/04/2006
But Adriana Mater, which was commissioned by the Paris National Opera and the Finnish National Opera, is a far darker work, [than L'Amour de Loin] one searingly painful in its depiction of humanity.
Alan Riding, The New York Times, 05/04/2006
At its most powerful, opera takes human, religious and political dramas of the past and gives them enduring relevance. Adriana Mater, the new opera by the heralded Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, borrows its haunting narrative from our own age and shows it to be a story for all time.
Its setting is a modern war, modern because it could be happening now... while the country is not named, the plot inevitably evokes the Bosnian war of the 1990’s, with its grim legacy of rape and ethnic cleansing.
[Adriana Mater is] a story of intensity [and] demands music of equal power... Saariaho succeeded in forging a work on an emotional scale only occasionally heard in contemporary opera.
The cast comprises just four characters...who are backed by an amplified offstage chorus. The opera’s changing moods are, in turn, defined by richly varied orchestration, both explosive and reflective, as well as by the urgent parlando and lyrical arias of the vocal parts....
[Adriana Mater is] searingly painful in its depiction of humanity.
Alan Riding, New York TImes
Saariaho's orchestral writing was as seductive as ever, often displaying a markedly vocal quality, the instruments vibrating in sympathy with the characters. Cello glissandos and wordless moaning from the BBC Singers set the music in motion...Saariho's vocal writing is always sympathetic to her singers, rarely calling for reckless acrobatics. Here it had elgance and restraint...
Nick Kimberley, Opera Magazine