After the end of a short summer break and the inauguration of the autumn season, along with “La Traviata” and “The Barber of Seville”, Teatro Massimo in Palermo opens its doors to the world premiere of “Winter Journey”, a contemporary multimedia opera composed by the world-renowned Ludovico Einaudi, written by the Irish novelist Colm Tóibin and directed by the accomplished filmmaker Roberto Andò. A video projection successfully interlaced with the opera plot, live music played by the orchestra of the Teatro Massimo and a contemporary performance interpreted by an international cast consisting of African, Italian and British singers and actors merged on stage in order to create a rich synesthetic experience. In this way, the stage of the Sicilian Opera House becomes a place to narrate through a single story what immigration might look like from the perspective of an asylum-seeker but the presence of the corpses on the proscenium remind us that it is not a happy story to tell.
Einaudi’s music composition delicately accompanies the drama that unfolds on stage without exceeding it. Through a minimalist and cinematographic approach, the music is further enriched by elements of African music traditions sung by Rokia Traoré, Badara Seck and Mouhamadou Sazll on stage, and Mamadou Dioume with Leslie Nsiah Afriyie on video. Their echoes superpositioned over the Western minimalist sounds follow the journey of a Man from Africa to Europe and of his family, a Woman and a Child, that is left behind in an unknown ruined city of the African continent. This is a single story that aims to speak of all those seeking refuge in Europe by attempting to cross the cold waters of the Mediterranean sea; this ambiguous element that its blue waters have often turned into red by the thousands of people who have lost their lives; this element of nature that becomes a bridge to life or death.
The stage of Teatro Massimo turns into a place that allows the co-existence of the different temporalities that asylum-seekers encounter through their journey from their home to Europe, a land often considered full of promises. More specifically, three different spaces and temporalities merge on the theatrical space through a very clear and layered spatial division that enables the narration of nostalgia and home-seeking, the hardship of immigration process and the mixed reactions on the Refugee Crisis to succeed one another.
The upper layer depicts the ruined city in Africa from where the Man fled in search of a better future. On the left side always appears his wife and on the right side his child who are both separated as well. The three family members are in a continuous search for communication with each other but the consequences of war and escape render it almost impossible. In the lower and downstage layer, there is a representation of the current anti-immigration tendencies that gradually spread across the European land. War, famine and life uncertainty on the upper layer contradict the European consumerism, conservatism and neoliberalism of the lower layer while a vertically moving video screen becomes the place of memory and dream, thus a reflection of the inner landscape of the Man, and a place to narrate his journey and to witness the contradictory past of Europe’s history and glory.
This is a very well-integrated video device into the scenic actions with successful fade in & outs that make smooth the transition from the mediated world to the real actions on stage. Underwater scenes that capture the strive for survival, different views of the sea depicting its diverse natures, archival and found footage and images in superposition are some of the elements that comprise the video component of the multimedia Opera.
Although every immigration story bears a different complexity, “Winter Journey” makes a strong statement about Europe and its failures in applying utopic foundational and constitutional principles such as fraternity and civility. As Roberto Andò reminds us in the second section of the libretto, the European Union was established under the dream for a united land without borders that would enable free mobility and where equality and the practice of human rights would be a priority. But the opera libretto recited by the opera chorus and an anonymous politician on the role of the principal — that is performed by the actor Jonathan Moore — reiterates what it is often discussed among the right wing European political parties: ‘We do not want strangers on our streets’. In Europe, the internal borders across the nation-members of the Union have become lighter while the personal borders less porous and open as the resistance of the right wing European governments to accept more immigrants expands from the Centre of Europe towards its edges. As Andò writes in the program notes, European citizens are lost between the meanings of the words ‘hospitality, integration, citizenship, humanity’ that blur further under the increase of refugees’ influx.
In a statement as such, that depicts Europe’s fear and distrust towards foreigners, Europe appears to forget that displacement and immigration are part of its history. History is spiral and it gets repeated each time with different performers and a different audience and in current times those seeking refuge are not the legally defined Europeans. Europe forgets and its memory is ‘like water’ : liquid, fluid and thus hard to grasp and concretise. As the text manifests, this is the shallow memory of Europe which has ‘a winter journey too’ . Although its dark past is covered with layers of snow, reminiscences of its progress in medicine and gun industry and of its success on technological development, philosophy, art, culture and architecture, sciences and education are still present. These achievements summarise a rather stereotypical representation of the European identity and comprise the strong commentary video of the pre-final scene of the Opera that is recited by the actress Ellen van Knoll.
In the last part that it is empty from the rhythmically composed video images and the reciting of text, there is no happy ending to console ourselves. As in James Joyce’s “The Dead”, the snow begins to fall over the living and the dead, and the Child , hopeless and alone on the stage, wonders ‘who will save us now that the war goes on?’. Not far from reality, this is a story of a familiar journey towards the uncertainty; the uncertainty of those fleeing war and the uncertainty of those who do not know how to deal effectively with the immigration issue.
Overall, “Winter Journey” is a work about the current Refugee Crisis with clear intentions to be political but not with the power to work politically on its own. An artistic approach of about-ness usually involves the danger of becoming representational or narrative and indeed “Winter Journey” risks to become a romanticized narration of a refugee’s journey. However, considering the overall context of Palermo — a city that actively resists to the threats and anti-immigration plans of Lega North that became the opposition government in Italy at the end of August 2019 –, and the continuous efforts of Teatro Massimo to open through multiple social initiatives opera — an often considered elitist genre — to everybody, “Winter Journey” is part of a larger goal to raise awareness, sensibilise our human side and mobilise us to act for a change.
The political significance of this effort expands further when considering that Sicily is located very close to Lampedusa, the first European territory that the refugees reach when they follow the route to enter Europe through Libya. “Winter Journey” is strong evidence that the Teatro Massimo Opera House gradually attempts to open its architectural and cultural heritage to new audiences, to expand its program beyond the reconstructions of existing operas and to embrace contemporaneity through current and local issues that speak broadly and globally. The potential political impact of this achievement only deserves acknowledgement and support.
“Winter Journey” is a co-production with Teatro San Carlo of Naples and it will be on its stage on the 10th and 11th of March 2020. More info here: https://www.teatrosancarlo.it/it/spettacoli/ludovico-einaudi-winter-journey.html