Encounters

A troubadour at war

Àlex Ollé. Portrait — By Isabelle Moindrot

Àlex Ollé, a stage director regularly acclaimed by the international press, is not unknown to Parisian opera-goers, and his productions of The Magic Flute, Bluebeard’s Castle and The Diary of One Who Disappeared, presented by the Catalan collective La Fura dels Baus in 2005 and 2007, have delighted Paris Opera audiences. Since then, many things have happened. La Fura has continued to explore the future (or, alas, anticipate current realities) with interactive, hi-tech projects like the “smartshow” M.U.R.S. performed at La Villette in June 2015, in which the audience was invited to take part in an experiment involving an imaginary chemical weapons attack. It also continues to offer somewhat more classical interpretations of the grand opera repertoire including Il Trovatore, performed this season at Opera Bastille. Captivating audiences with its tormented, visionary ardour, this production remains true both to Verdi’s spirit of melodrama and the collective’s commitment to the present, which, since its foundation in 1979, is one of the hallmarks of La Fura dels Baus.

La Fura dels Baus brings together musicians, dancers, mime artists, actors, film-makers, directors, painters and sculptors and, in the tradition of Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty”, seeks to kindle in audiences the searing flame of strong emotions and to stamp the theatrical moment with the seal of unique experience. It was initially associated with street theatre, making original use of urban spaces and bringing together performers and spectators to project an active political discourse into the public arena, before becoming more widely known for the mastery and artistic daring of its staged productions. Within a few years, the singular language of La Fura was to be heard in different places throughout the world. To cite only one example, it provided the central feature in the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, since when it has been regularly invited to appear at major cultural events in every continent. 

Il Trovatore, 2016
Il Trovatore, 2016 © Charles Duprat / OnP

The revolutionary take of the group has not disappeared but it has changed. The pursuit of an immediate physical impact has given way to an emotional and intellectual quest, whose impetus is constantly recharged through technological innovation. The work of the collective branched out at one point towards the fantasy film genre, and their first film, Fausto 5.0, swept the board for prizes when it was released at the beginning of the century. This theatre of emotion has thus embraced new media, reinventing itself through a constant search for new audiences. These have indeed become more diverse and widespread, a fitting parallel with La Fura’s ship, Le Naumon, which has sailed from Europe to China laden with images, sounds and artists, pushing back the limits of space, time and reason.

On the voyage that brought the Catalan collective to the world of opera, despite its being set seemingly on other courses, one man played a decisive role: Gérard Mortier went to Barcelona, discovered La Fura and invited them to Salzburg. Coolly signing up not one or even several artists, but an entire collective, and one with a strange name into the bargain (Baus is the birthplace of one of the founder members and Fura means ferret in Catalan), ushered in a new era. Wouldn’t La Fura have been something of an intrusion? Mightn't they launch an attack against opera? Not a bit of it! Mortier entrusted the collective with the direction of the 1999 production of The Damnation of Faust and it turned out to be a stroke of genius! The myth of the ageing scholar whose life dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge has left him bitter and frustrated and who, as death beckons, makes a pact with Hell, is one that has always haunted the founders of La Fura, and which recurs again and again in their work, - in 2014 for example, with a Faust (by Gounod) in which the hero appears as a contemporary biologist working on a dangerous “Humunculus Project”.

As the age of the Promethean director – a figure of admiration for amateurs and a target for critics – draws imperceptibly to a close, a broader aesthetic is emerging, interweaving creative functions and giving form to overtly hybrid artistic identities. La Fura has excited admiration for its capacity to transpose meaning collectively in a quasi-organic manner. Nothing distinguishes it better from what is generally done in the world of opera than the ways in which it uses not only dancers and acrobats but also stage machinery, lighting and video footage to create powerful effects, giving the vocal artists their due importance and enabling them to transcend themselves.

Tristan et Isolde , 2011
Tristan et Isolde , 2011 © Stofleth

For many years, Àlex Ollé and Carlus Padrissa directed operatic productions together under the label La Fura dels Baus, until the number of contracts and the ramifications of their lives led them along separate paths. This can be seen merely as the result of the opera system or interpreted in the light of evolutions in stage direction. If a sense of wonder, a physical sense of immensity, of being carried away by the visual magic, remains the hallmark of their work, La Fura seeks nevertheless to break the chains of this fascination. In Àlex Ollé’s work, spectacular profusion converges into something sharper, with a single perspective, a marked re-focussing contributing to a re-appropriation of drama through an approach to direction observable over the last few years. Thus, in Un ballo in masquera, Ollé’s first Verdi opera, a prize-winning production premiered in Sydney in 2013, then revived in Cologne and Buenos Aires, the director sought to recreate the political fire of Verdi himself and drew inspiration from Orwell’s novel 1984, transposing the action to the near future in the aftermath of an economic crisis that has radically altered human relationships. In the same way also, in The Flying Dutchman, first performed in Lyon in 2014, Franc Aleu’s video footage created hallucinatory illusionist effects and reinforced the theatrical choices of the director. The action was in fact transposed to one of the most polluted places on the planet, the port of Chittagong in Bangladesh where workers are forced to dismantle cargos in appallingly dangerous conditions, in this case, the cursed cargo of the Flying Dutchman.

However, the political and critical dimension is in no sense a “discourse” imposed from outside but the result of a shared, incandescent vision. By unravelling certain symbolic strands, often highly sensual in nature, and soliciting spaces combining the realistic and formal potentialities of both the staging and video projection, Ollé creates connections between far-flung reaches of the imagination and leads us into the present. Thus, in Le Grand macabre, a prize-winning production dated 2009, the use of laughter, both salutary and grotesque, evoked the outlandish universe of Hieronymous Bosch as an image of the perversions of a contemporary society obsessed with the spectacular. To give another example, in the 2011 Lyon Opera production of Tristan and Isolde, a hemispherical stage represented first the moon, then King Mark’s castle, the lovers’ emotional prison and finally the deadly labyrinth of nihilistic aspirations.

In his 2015 production of Pelléas et Mélisande for Dresden Semperoper, the silhouettes of Pelléas, Golaud and Arkel, with their long white hair, embodied the strange and archaic resemblance between the male characters, highlighting the immutable singularity of Mélisande and, by a kind of ricochet, the mystery of the recurrent violence inflicted on what is most delicate and unique in each one of us.   

Le Grand Macabre, 2009
Le Grand Macabre, 2009 © Bernd Uhlig

What of humanity, of its mutations, of the parameters of its social structures, of its links with nature and with life? This is the question posed by La Fura to today’s audiences. What is remarkable about Alex Ollé, an artist who respects the text to the letter when directing his actors, is that he manages to give substance to the burning preoccupations of operatic fiction whilst bringing out in his singers all the fire of their physical presence. For anyone who loves singing, to watch a performance of Il Trovatore staged in that spirit is a total experience. Far from deflecting attention by complicated dramaturgy, the direction is tight, reducing the intrigue to first principles. The story is transposed to a period close to our own time (roughly 1914-1918), a period of war between brothers, frenzied, wearying, in which human life has no longer any value and only primal passions – hatred, jealousy, vengeance, anxiety and love prevail.

The director has opted for an abstract scenography (the work of Alfons Flores) using vertically compressible pillars. Illuminated by Urs Schönbaum’s magnificent expressionist lighting design, creating sculpturesque shadows and highlighting the symbolic use of colour, the set metamorphoses with every scene, defining spaces that vibrate like a living character. Non-human and yet utterly reactive to the unfolding drama, the space turns from ochre to grey, at times lit from below with a sickly green, blazing at others like a funeral pyre or edged with a ribbon of blood, the shadows thickening to obscurity whilst mirrors at the sides and back of the stage constantly reflect the scene in zones of dream-like intensity.

In the chaotic universe of Il Trovatore, the possibility of otherness is so utterly denied that parents condemn their own children to the flames and brother slaughters brother. Ollé shows us a world consumed by fire, a world of armed combat, through which the gypsies must pass with their suitcases and bundles in a new exodus reminiscent of so many others. Towers rise up or disappear beneath the stage, marking out streets, walls or rows of tombs, hollowing out the lines of ditches where anonymous bodies are tossed without the least ceremony. The faces of the chorus and extras – soldiers, nuns, - disappear beneath helmets and veils or behind gas masks. Castle, camp, cloister, prison, - all are now in ruins and exude the scent of death. If crosses have been placed here and there in the burial ground, God seems to have deserted the field. However, when the troubadour appears, all is still, frozen or suspended, as if the only possible salvation on this earth resides in the fire of artistic creation. More than ever, perhaps, it is necessary to reiterate this and remember it.

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