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A scene from Fortress Europe [Photo by Hans van den Bogaard]
27 Mar 2017

Brave but flawed world premiere: Fortress Europe in Amsterdam

Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.

Brave but flawed world premiere: Fortress Europe in Amsterdam

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: A scene from Fortress Europe

Photos by Hans van den Bogaard

 

The number of migrants trying to reach Europe by sea is already picking up, as it does every year. Putting their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers, scores of them will drown. The ones who reach European shores will face years of uncertainty in asylum centers and hostility from nativists and nationalists who feel threatened by them. Librettist Jonathan West, informed by the writings of Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, bravely tackles the most salient aspects of the European migrant crisis. The libretto is economical and purposeful in the beginning, but loses momentum halfway through. Tsoupaki’s atmospheric score contains some involving scenes, but is ultimately too circuitous to be fully convincing.

Totally up to the mark, on the other hand, are the cast and production. Director Floris Visser keeps things clear and to the point. Costumes and set are unfussy. On a rotating stage, sharp rocks denote a Greek island and a large door is the gateway to Europe. The drowning chorus wears life jackets sent over from Lesbos by an NGO that works with migrants. Soprano Rosemary Joshua sang Europa, an old woman living in Brussels. She is the mouthpiece of the current anti-immigrant sentiment shaping the European political landscape. With meticulous singing and crisp enunciation, Joshua created a focused portrait of a woman clinging to the past and terrified of the present. Her hankering for Old Europe is poetically expressed through the myth of Europa, the Phoenician princess who dreamed of two continents, Asia and an unnamed continent, fighting over her. The next morning she was carried away across the sea to Crete by Zeus disguised as a beautiful white bull. Europa gave Zeus sons and her name to her new home.

17.03.19-0898.pngA scene from Fortress Europe

Political tensions over the influx of migrants are explored in conversations between Europa and her son Frans, a politician. Tenor Erik Slik sank his teeth wholeheartedly into this role in an emotionally charged and vocally assertive performance. Frans, a progressively sympathetic figure, is torn between his political mandate to guard European borders and his empathy for the refugees. While Europa recalls her youthful romance with phrases curling into melismas, Frans reminds her that even she once washed up in Europe from foreign shores. Mother and son fight over granting asylum to Amar, a Syrian who is the sole survivor of a catastrophic crossing. Europa refuses him entry, destroying him. Bass-baritone Yavuz Arman İşleker sang Amar with much vocal beauty and dignity. His slight Turkish accent added to the complexity of the topic under scrutiny. Amar’s re-enactment of the drowning with the chorus of migrants was the emotional peak of the opera. The excellent Netherlands Student Chamber Choir supplied young, vibrato-light voices for the spectral chorus. Singing a haunting Arab folk song, they fell silent one by one, shedding their life jackets onto a forlorn heap.

Conductor Bas Wiegers led the seven-strong Asko|Schönberg ensemble with confidence. The oboe and cor anglais had the lion’s share of the solos, in languid Eastern scales and plaintive keening. Tsoupaki is free with musical idioms, braiding passages for string quartet with Greek Orthodox hymns and Arab melodies. A harp evokes nostalgia and percussion crescendos mark dramatic events, while sound effects recreate wind and waves. Lucid orchestral colors suggest an exposed beach or the glade where Europa gives herself to Zeus. The problem is that Tsoupaki’s vocal writing is rhythmically repetitive and her melodies tenuous. Ariosos for the soloists begin promisingly, but end up where they started without evolving. The percussion flare-ups lose their impact through overuse. She passes over the opportunity to write a lively ensemble scene when journalists cross-examine Frans about his immigration policy. The entire press conference is spoken, and very well too, but it is too long.

Wordiness, successfully avoided during the trenchant phone conversations between mother and son, mars their final confrontation. They become megaphones for pro- and anti-immigration arguments and the music is not inventive enough to sustain interest. Amar’s tragic end is a horrific climax, but it arrives to late. Fortress Europe is the first installment of a trilogy about sociopolitical bushfires called Sign of the Times, produced by a company called Opera Trionfo. Dutch National Opera is collaborating on the project and this world premiere was part of their annual Opera Forward Festival. Musically, this ninety-minute work never reaches the boiling point required by its subject matter, but its best moments and the high quality of the performance makes one curious about its sequels.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Europa: Rosemary Joshua, soprano; Frans, the politician: Erik Slik, tenor; Amar, the refugee: Yavuz Arman İşleker, bass-baritone. Director: Floris Visser; Set and Costume Design: Dieuweke van Reij; Lighting Design: Alex Brok. Composer: Calliope Tsoupaki; Libretto: Jonathan West; Conductor: Bas Wiegers. Netherlands Student Chamber Choir, Asko|Schönberg. Seen at the Rabozaal, Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam, Wednesday, 22nd March 2017.

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