“Adriana Mater” is an opera of difficult questions and emotions but straightforward plot. Adriana (the mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, a mighty presence in a small frame) rebuffs Tsargo, a drunk young man, with a mixture of disgust and pity. But later, Tsargo — sung by the baritone Christopher Purves with Alberich-like bite — returns during wartime to rape her, empowered by circumstance and an assault rifle. Adriana becomes pregnant, and despite warnings from her sister, Refka (the alluringly lyrical soprano Axelle Fanyo), chooses to have the baby. “It isn’t his child,” Adriana says. “It’s mine.”
But she does worry: Will the child be more like Tsargo or like her? Cain or Abel? Act II, set 17 years later, puts that uncertainty to the test when her son, Yonas (an agile, heldentenor-like Nicholas Phan) learns his father’s identity and sets out to kill him. But when he sees Tsargo, blind and broken, he cannot bring himself to do it. Yonas feels ashamed for not carrying out the murder, but his mother is relieved. He is truly her son.
Saariaho’s music is rarely representational. Adriana’s offstage rape is punctuated with violent chords, and drilling percussion evokes the assault of war, but otherwise the writing favors atmosphere and abstraction. In a way that prefigures the grand tapestry of “Innocence,” she attaches specific sounds to each character: turbulent harmony for Adriana, long melodic lines for Refka, darkly shadowed low strings for Tsargo, frantic lightness for Yonas. Too often in contemporary music, conductors seem merely to be keeping time; but all this was handled deftly by Salonen, who looked as animated and assured as if he were conducting Beethoven.
Sellars’s concert-hall staging was minimal, as was his original production at the Paris Opera. Here, the action unfolded on platforms of various heights that kept the singers, looking contemporary, if not specifically of any one place, in Camille Assaf’s costumes, almost always isolated. At the start, Adriana and Tsargo’s little stages, under James F. Ingalls’s lighting, were colored yellow and blue, as if to suggest that the story took place in Ukraine.
But any comparison to the current war didn’t linger. The colors changed constantly, mercurial and expressive, as the action unfolded. Neither Sellars nor the opera, after all, needed an updated story to make it more recognizable. That’s already in the score, in the way Saariaho’s delicately consoling music stares down the worst of the world and says: The only way forward is grace.
Performed on Sunday at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.