Fiora trapped in the labyrinth of the three kings

Fiora trapped in the labyrinth of the three kings

Director Àlex Ollé, one of the voices of the renowned Catalan group La Fura dels Baus, returns to La Scala to work on the Decadent medieval world imagined by Italo Montemezzi

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Born in Barcelona in 1960, Àlex Ollé joined Fura dels Baus shortly after it was founded in 1970 and in the early 1980s would become one of the six artistic directors of the famous company, working largely on its main shows, including that of the opening ceremony of the Olympics in 1992, created alongside Carlus Padrissa. With Padrissa and Jaume Plensa, Ollé’s first operatic projects took shape, and he has dedicated much of his energy to opera between 1996 and today. This year, Àlex Ollé returns to La Scala with L’amore dei tre re, the most famous of Italo Montemezzi’s operas. Set in medieval Italy during the Barbarian invasions, the libretto by Sem Benelli tells the story of Fiora, who is betrothed to Italian prince Avito but given in marriage by the invading king Archibaldo to his son Manfredo in an intricate game of power that no character can escape.


AT Your return to La Scala brings back a piece that the theatre hasn't seen since 1953.

AO And this is despite the great fortune it first had, after its premiere at La Scala in 1913 and especially its success at the Metropolitan in New York with Toscanini the following year. After the first triumph there were dozens and dozens of productions in Italy but, after his death, Montemezzi's fame gradually waned and even his most famous opera was rarely performed.


AT What was your first impression of this opera?

AO I was captivated from the first listen by Montemezzi's music and even more so by Sem Benelli's libretto, which offers the director several challenges. First, there are few characters and the story is also a bit peculiar. To understand it better, one has to think of D'Annunzio, Maeterlinck, and the Decadent and Symbolist atmosphere at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which brought to mind my work on Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande.


AT What is the opera about?

AO It is about a hostile, masculine world and a woman left to face it alone. None of the three kings in the title, Archibaldo, Manfredo, and Avito, help Fiora. The only one who shows some kindness is Manfredo, but how is it possible that he does not understand Fiora's plight as a prisoner in the castle? And her lover, her betrothed Avito, why does he not rescue her, why do they not escape together?


AT Yes, why?

AO Because Fiora is nothing more than the object of a male desire for power that the three protagonists themselves struggle to control. And that is what interests us with this opera: to explore the psyche of the characters with the singers, to understand their most subconscious motivations, to get to the heart of it. Because if you just follow the plot, it can also seem trivial.


AT What role does the old Archibaldo play in the quartet?

AO Archibaldo is the third king, the old man of war who is now blind, and for me he is the most important character, the true protagonist. He is the backbone of the whole story, the one who forces Fiora to marry his son Manfredo, projecting the fulfillment of his own erotic desire for her onto his son. He is a terrible and cruel character, in whom the strength of a warrior and the decline of old age merge.


AT Manfredo, Avito and Fiora: what do the other three main characters represent?

AO Manfredo is nothing but a pitiful man. One only has to observe him to realize that he grew up under the iron fist of his father, who stifled any possible positive inclination. His love for Fiora, however, is still nobler than Avito's.


AT And yet, in traditional interpretations, Avito is the rightful heir to the throne, the oppressed hero.

AO Yes, but let's look again at my earlier question: why doesn't he help Fiora? He carries on his erotic adventure, yes, but then he has no interest in helping her. That is why Avito is in my opinion a fake and hypocritical character.


AT And Fiora?

AO Fiora is the victim. She is in love with Avito, but oppressed to the point of developing a kind of Stockholm Syndrome for Manfredo, held hostage in a castle that is impossible to escape.


AT How did you create the atmosphere of the castle?

AO It is clear that this castle is symbolic. There's nothing of the Middle Ages here except a romantic fascination, veiled in Decadentism and Symbolism, and even shows expressionist features. That is why we have reduced everything to the essentials: a maze of chains, a bed and a staircase to evoke the idea of the tower. The important thing is that the stage paints a picture of Fiora's inner feelings, her claustrophobia. Unlike the other characters, she cannot escape from this labyrinth.


AT What was it like working on this opera?

AO The process was very similar to any new production. The first thing we start with is the music, without visual references, so we imagine what it expresses, and I must say Montemezzi's music will not leave you indifferent. Then we go to the historical and aesthetic context in which the opera was created, to figure out how to interpret the different aspects of the libretto, how to proceed with this psychological excavation. As a type of work, it reminded me a lot of Francesconi's Quartett, which was also my La Scala debut.


AT You have a special relationship with Milan. Accions and other Fura dels Baus projects come to mind.

AO Yes, for Fura, Milan has always been a point of reference. We have always found success here for our shows, especially for plays. But with Accions we go way back, to 1987. And we were at the Ansaldo, where rehearsals for La Scala take place today.


AT A much different Ansaldo from that of today.

AO Very different. There wasn’t anything. It was abandoned. The neighborhood was also different. There weren’t all these stores, restaurants. It was a neighbourhood on the fringes. In fact, when they told me that rehearsals for Quartett would be at the Ansaldo, I couldn’t believe it. In my head, it was still the empty space in which we had staged Accions.


AT What do you remember of Accions?

AO Not only for us in Fura, but for all of Spain, it was an incredible moment. After Franco's death in 1975, the energy suppressed during decades of dictatorship exploded. It was as if a bottle of prosecco that had been shaken for hours had suddenly been popped! But throughout Europe, the 1980s were explosive years.


AT Things are different today?

AO Very. With the turn of the millennium, after several years of economic abundance and wide funding, the theatre scene has gone a bit dormant. In the past, I have seen a lot more innovation in opera, thanks in part to figures like Gérard Mortier, who was truly a cultural agitator and allowed opera to engage with artists, architects, filmmakers, and theatre directors. Today, after some stagnation even in opera, I think the time has come to stir up our consciences.


AT At the moment, however, we are observing a rather reactionary impulse regarding opera directing.

AO Yes, and it is frightening. But I think culture will react as it always has, which is to push even further. This push doesn't have to come from my generation, it has to come from the young people, but to me they seem to be struggling a bit, lacking confidence in the future. However, it is when your back is against the wall that you have to seriously start fighting.


AT You have been part of La Fura dels Baus since its early years. What do you see in your future with the company?

AO La Fura is and always will be part of my DNA, and relations with the company are always excellent. After 40 years of collaboration, however, I am beginning to feel the need to find my own independent path, with my own team and my own identity. I will never forget the journey together, but I think it is time for me to look forward.

Alessandro Tommasi
Translation by Alexa Ahern