Sometimes it’s the simplest gestures that carry the keenest meaning: the goodbye look, the abruptly turned back. Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater, now in its American premiere performances at the Santa Fe Opera, abounds in significant physical gestures. Peter Sellars, the stage director, makes sure of that.

The final, most profound of these is the wordless image of a mother’s embrace of her sullen son and then, more tellingly, the son’s slow return of her embrace. That gesture sums up Saariaho’s compressed parable of violence more effectively than anything spoken or sung. Rape, revenge, the horrors of war—these lose their power in the face of a compassionate embrace.

A similar moment concludes Balanchine’s ballet, The Prodigal Son, when the son in his abject return leaps suddenly into the cradling arms of his stern father. Forgiveness and reconciliation radiate from this inspired, abrupt movement. But Saariaho rejects the father-son connection. The concern here is purely maternal.

After all, the opera’s title is Adriana Mater, not Adriana Lecouvreur. Saariaho has said many times that the initial impulse for the work came from her own experience of childbearing and birth, feeling that second heart beating within her. In short, maternity trumps politics.

The opera’s seven scenes tell a simple story. In a nameless country, civil war rages. Tsargo, the thuggish fellow-villager of Adriana, rapes her. Despite the urgings of her conventional sister, Refka, Adriana vows to carry Tsargo’s child. Seventeen years later the son, Yonas, discovers that his father is not a war hero but a despicable, opportunistic rapist. Furious at his mother’s concealment of the truth, he rejects her and vows to kill his father. When the opportunity arises, Yonas cannot murder the now-blind Tsargo. In the opera’s final moment, that silent mother-son reconciliation takes place.

It’s the embodiment of a relationship that couldn’t be farther from Mommie-Dearest sentimentality. The bitterness and vengeance that inhabit the action vanish. Adriana says, simply, “We are not avenged, Yonas—we are saved.” Of this moment, Sellars has commented, “Here we see that there will be a future. And that future has been guaranteed all over the world by women, women who in impossible situations nourish and cultivate human dignity.”

People will say, “Oh, so this is a feminist opera, then,” and having provided a neat label feel they’ve settled the matter. Or, again, “Oh, so this is an anti-war opera,” and provided yet another label that explains nothing. If Adriana Mater is about anything, and it is, it’s about birth: the heart-to-heart creation of sympathetic identity and affection in the forbidding context of the nightly news. Saariaho and her librettist, Amin Maalouf are telling us: that’s what mothers are for.

If you liked the crystalline music for Saariaho’s first opera, L’Amour de Loin, premiered here in 2002, be prepared for a change. There’s a multi-layered, ever-shifting massiveness to much of the score for Adriana Mater, bathing the hearer in its complex, kaleidoscopic patterns. Instruments—the double basses, the clarinet—are pushed almost beyond their limits. Wordless choral passages, electronically projected, support the large orchestral forces. The percussion battery just won’t quit.

At times the sound recalls Berg’s expressionism, especially, say, the interludes in Lulu. It can wound. It can also heal, as it does in the quiet resolution of the final pages. The vocal writing is generally kind to the voice and to the ear. Much is declamatory, but you’ll hear arias and ensembles that link the piece to formal convention.

As part of Saariaho’s electronic scheme, the four singers are slightly amplified. Lustrous-voiced Monica Groop as Adriana leads a uniformly excellent cast that includes Pia Freund as her plaintive, ineffectual sister, Refka. Matthew Best is a darkly resonant Tsargo in the first act, a broken shadow in the second. As Yonas, Joseph Kaiser sings and acts with vivid conviction. Ernest Martínez Izquierdo’s account of the demanding score never loses balance with the stage and moves the action with propulsive energy.

Sellars’ direction is so apt, so refined that it becomes virtually invisible. Every gesture and movement, even the slightest, carries implicit meaning for the character and the moment. Martin Pakledinaz’ costumes are similarly unobtrusive while always effective. James Ingalls’ complex, iridescent lighting scheme informs the translucent sets by George Tsypin. Five domes glow with shifting significance in the first act, are reduced to a single dome in the second.

The dome, as Sellars sees it, projects in its shape and evocative presence the maternal image. In this he is at one with Virginia Woolf who created in her novel To the Lighthouse the greatest maternal figure of 20th century literature, the poignant, magnificent Mrs. Ramsay. A character describes her as wearing, in her wisdom, "an august shape, the shape of a dome." Saariaho's Adriana, in her capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness, could be her loving daughter.

Adriana Mater
8:30 pm Wednesday, July 30
Various times and dates through Aug. 12

Santa Fe Opera
Hwy. 84/285,
7 miles north of Santa Fe