Why La Fura’s Norma is playing with fire at Covent Garden

With its chilling nods to druidic practices, Islamic State and hardline Catholicism, La Fura dels Baus’s new production of Bellini’s Norma packs a political punch – but how will it fare with the purists?

Bellini operas are like buses. Six months after English National Opera unveiled its first ever production of the composer’s masterpiece Norma, over at Covent Garden, the same work is about to appear for the first time in nearly 30 years. A couple of weeks ago, at the Edinburgh festival, another version was performed. The production starred Cecilia Bartoli, who, despite being incontrovertibly a mezzo, triumphed in one of the toughest soprano roles. In the world of opera, 2016 will be remembered as the year the druidic diva returned.

Of these new Normas, the Royal Opera’s reimagining is perhaps the most intriguing. Directed by the renegade Catalan collective La Fura dels Baus, it relocates Bellini’s Roman-occupied Gaul brusquely to the present: druidic robes are replaced by the uniforms of hard-right Christian groups; gloomy temples are abandoned in favour of sleek modern apartments. Outside the opera world, the company, founded in 1979, is still best known for the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, an awe-inspiring if perplexing spectacle in which 2,000 blue-cape-wearing volunteers impersonated the Mediterranean sea. At Covent Garden, one wonders if the shade of Maria Callas – who made her debut as Norma here in the early 1950s, where it remained her favourite role – knows what she is in for.

In fairness, although La Fura came to prominence in the exuberant riot of Spanish creativity that followed the death of Franco in 1975 (one carnivalesque site‑specific 1985 work in London’s Docklands was commended for resembling an “adult adventure playground”), these days their CV is more mature, with premieres at the Verona festival and Madrid’s Teatro Real among recent highlights. La Fura is strong in opera: its version of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre was extravagantly praised when it came to ENO in 2009, and a rare revival of Enescu’s Oedipe at the Royal Opera House earlier this year, collaboratively created by Àlex Ollé, Valentina Carrasco and Alfons Flores, moved the critics to near-unanimous ecstasy. They retain some of the old take-no-prisoners spirit, though. The set for Le Grand Macabre was dominated by a remote-controlled model of a woman’s naked torso, with the singers entering and exiting via various orifices – a reference, the company explained, to the opera’s obsession with the body and death.

Sitting in a backstage meeting room after a long day of rehearsals with ROH music director Antonio Pappano, Ollé says that Norma is a tougher nut to crack. Its reputation as a showcase for bel canto gymnastics is one obvious reason. Although the plot is emotionally harrowing – having had a covert relationship and two children with the Roman governor Pollione, the priestess Norma is stunned to realise he has abandoned her for a younger woman – the story often comes a distant second to Bellini’s impassioned music, with its surging melodies and sinuous lines. Trickiest of all is his writing for Norma herself: the role is a high-wire act that requires tremendous vocal dexterity. One suspects some audiences wouldn’t greatly care if the cast were wearing old curtains so long as the heroine wafts through her famous prayer for peace, “Casta Diva”, with the requisite impeccable tone.

Norma tends to be done very traditionally,” Ollé says. “But the situation is so extreme and dramatic: religion, fanaticism. The heroine is caught in the middle of all this. We’ve attempted to bring it up-to-date, to make the opera as full as possible.”

Alex Ollé rehearses Norma at the Royal Opera House
Alex Ollé rehearses Norma at the Royal Opera House. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

Pulling open a laptop, he swipes through photographs that influenced Flores’s designs: priests in crow-like soutanes; Franco-like dictators sporting sunglasses; most eerily, gaggles of children wearing triangular capes and hoods resembling those of the KKK (the costume is still commonplace during religious festivals in parts of Spain). The nods to druidic practice are clear enough, but they are brutal and chilling. The shadowy world of hardline Catholic groups such as Opus Dei were one inspiration, Ollé explains; so too was George Bush’s notorious announcement after the 11 September attacks that the US would launch a “crusade” against Islamist terrorism. One of the production’s most arresting visuals is a thicketed corona of crosses – some 1,200 in all – that will descend on to the stage.

“Our setting is fictional,” Ollé says, “but the elements come from reality. All these things happen in real life.”

If anyone is hoping that the production would provide a few hours of melodious relief from the horrors of Islamic State, they had better recalibrate, Carrasco adds: “There’s a lot of politics, but that’s all there in the piece. Of course in bel canto you have these universal themes, the girl wanting the boy or the other way around, but here it’s a tissue of different things. There are personal conflicts. But in Norma especially, the personal becomes political.”

The character of Norma herself is particularly fascinating. Composed by Bellini for the mesmerically talented 19th-century star Giuditta Pasta, the role has been an inspiration for a long line of tragic heroines, including Verdi’s Violetta and Wagner’s Isolde.

“She’s a lion!” Carrasco exclaims. “Pollione leaves her, and she incites a war. There’s a lot of strength there. Actually, part of the difficulty with the opera is that the audience is inevitably on her side; you have to make Pollione sympathetic, too. He can’t look like an asshole.”

Watch Maria Callas singing Casta Diva

The heroine’s role in this new production was originally intended to be taken by the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, until she abruptly pulled out in April, to the ROH’s barely concealed frustration. Now the Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva will follow in the footsteps of Callas and Joan Sutherland, another notable Norma.

I ask Carrasco if they’re feeling the pressure. “Of course, it’s hard, particularly for Sonya. But then it’s such a hard role anyway: there’s no let up in the vocal writing. She barely has any time off stage.”

The two directors say they’re still figuring out one of the opera’s trickiest moments, the denouement. Felice Romano’s libretto calls for the heroine to throw herself on a sacrificial pyre, along with her two children, a moment that rivals anything in Greek tragedy for extremity. Ollé won’t be drawn on the details, but hints that their interpretation may surprise purists: “The closer what you put on stage is to what is in your mind, the better. But the singers need to inhabit it, and if it doesn’t work, there’s nothing. If you don’t believe in it emotionally, then the show … ” He mimes a plane smashing into the ground.

Director of opera for the Royal Opera, Kasper Holten.
Director of opera for the Royal Opera, Kasper Holten. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The question remains of how those purists will respond. The Opera House is not renowned for the open-mindedness of its audience, and the announcement that the adventurous director of opera Kasper Holten will depart next year was greeted in some quarters with a sniff of approval (a replacement has not yet been announced). Earlier this year, Katie Mitchell’s doomy reimagining of another 1930s classic, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, was booed.

Is Ollé concerned by such things? “I have been booed before,” he shrugs. “Not often, but I have been booed. I don’t worry about this. I didn’t see Lucia, but audiences sometimes boo when there is something gratuitous on stage. There is no gratuitousness in our Norma: everything is thought through. It is not about shocking people: I want to make them think.”

Still, all this talk of fanaticism reminds me of certain parts of the opera cognoscenti, I say. There is a saturnine grin. “Conservative people can be extremist, not just in Spain but in England, too.”

La Fura dels Baus, literally translated, means “the ferret from the Baus”, for the engaging reason that when the company originally came together, they struggled to find a name and thought it sounded playful (the Baus is a small river near Barcelona, now a dumping ground). Nearly as tantalising is what they call the “Furan language”, a phrase that attempts to encompass their freewheeling blend of audiovisual wizardry, acrobatics and puppetry. The company is as energetically productive as ever: though the core group is run by six directors, it now makes a staggering quantity of work across theatre and music, as well as continuing to mount the large-scale spectacles that forged its reputation.

“Film, too,” Ollé corrects me. “You can’t ring fence creativity. All these ideas feed into each other: after directing Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust I also developed a version of Goethe as a movie. We collaborate with many different people, different specialisms. Everyone brings something fresh. We enjoy a challenge.”

I’m dying to ask about one of La Fura’s more prog rock-ish projects, their mid-2000s acquisition of a former Norwegian icebreaker, 60m long, which they christened “Naumon” (“world in a ship”) and sailed to various ports around the Mediterranean, using it as a makeshift theatre. “We didn’t just want to have a theatre only in Barcelona, we wanted to have a theatre in many places. So why not a boat? But this was a crazy idea – in the end we were several million euros in debt.”

He puts his head in his hands. “A theatre company with that much debt. We had to work very hard to pay it off. But we don’t regret the adventure.” The saturnine grin reappears. “This is La Fura. Why not?”

Norma is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, from 12 September to 8 October. roh.org.uk.


Andrew Dickson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The whiff of scandal surrounding Shostakovich’s Nose
With its cast of 80, a new English version of Shostakovich’s satirical opera The Nose is set to bring mayhem to Covent Garden, as its translator David Pountney explains

David Pountney

15, Oct, 2016 @11:00 AM

Article image
How Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel became opera’s most surreal soiree
More than 50 years on, Thomas’s Adès’s latest opera is a chilling response to the classic film about a dinner party from which the guests have no escape

Jonathan Romney

01, Apr, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Why Wagner’s Die Meistersinger strikes a chord in the age of Brexit
Embraced by the Nazis, Wagner’s operatic masterpiece has long been shrouded in controversy. Its debate about cultural unity is now more relevant than ever

Philip Hensher

24, Feb, 2017 @2:00 PM

Article image
Francesca Simon: how I turned The Monstrous Child into ‘Wagner for teens’
The Horrid Henry author’s YA novel about a smart-talking Norse goddess has become an opera – what will young audiences make of it?

Francesca Simon

22, Feb, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
How Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis became an opera
Kane’s final play is being adapted for the first time, 17 years after she killed herself. Composer Philip Venables talks about the rare musical quality of her work

Nicholas Wroe

21, May, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
The designer going from Gaga to the Olympic closing ceremony

Es Devlin has designed sets for Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Take That, and has just recreated Carthage for Les Troyens at Covent Garden. She talks to Nicholas Wroe as she prepares for the biggest show of all – the London 2012 closing ceremony

Nicholas Wroe

29, Jun, 2012 @9:55 PM

Article image
Orfeo: looking back at Monteverdi’s masterpiece
Don Paterson thought writing a singable English version of a 17th-century Italian opera would be a breeze, until he found himself ‘fitting a set of spanners into a velvet box made for a dinner service’

Don Paterson

10, Jan, 2015 @9:00 AM

Article image
Martin Crimp: ‘I wrote a play called Cruel and Tender – I hope to be both’
Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley have starred in his bleakly funny, sometimes dowright horrible plays. As The Treatment is revived at the Almeida, Martin Crimp talks about how his work can scandalise and surprise

Andrew Dickson

24, Mar, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Simon Rattle leads a revolution at the Royal Opera House

How do you give Poulenc's opera about revolutionary France an authentic edge? Cast homeless people, ex-offenders and the unemployed. Nicholas Wroe attended rehearsals

Nicholas Wroe

30, May, 2014 @6:00 AM

Article image
Why Verdi's Vêpres Siciliennes is a high-wire act
Les Vêpres Siciliennes is one of Verdi's most neglected late works. Ahead of its first performance at Covent Garden, director Stefan Herheim reveals the challenges of bringing it to the stage

Martin Kettle

11, Oct, 2013 @4:28 PM