7 October 2013
Patrice Chéreau, 68, Who Directed Bayreuth's Centennial Ring Cycle, Has Died
Lezigne, Maine-et-Loire, France, November 2, 1944–Paris, October 7, 2013
Patrice Chéreau, 68, who revolutionized modern stagings of the music dramas of Richard Wagner with his 1976 Bayreuth mounting of the composer's Ring tetralogy before going on to direct incisive productions of Lulu, Don Giovanni, Così fan Tutte, Elektra, and From the House of the Dead, has died.
Chéreau, who had been suffering from lung cancer, reportedly continued to work until a few hours before his death in Paris.
Chéreau did not direct a great deal of opera throughout his varied career, but he nevertheless made an indelible mark in those productions he undertook. Known throughout the world for his highly provocative production of Wagner's Ring Cycle at the Bayreuth Festival on the occasion of the work's centenary, he quickly earned twin armies of ardent champions and violent detractors. Ironically, after its controversy-ridden unveiling, "the Chéreau Ring," as it came to be routinely known, was hailed as a masterpiece of regietheater.
Chéreau was born into an artistic family; both his parents were painters. Stage struck early on, he became stage manager of his theater at his high school, the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, known for its daunting academic standards. He went on to study at the Sorbonne, and began working as a director at the Théâtre de Sartrouville and Milan's Piccolo Teatro. He was also acclaimed for his productions at France's Théâtre National Populaire. When he was approached about directing the Bayreuth Ring, he had done only two operas, Les Contes d'Hoffmann at Paris Opera, and L'Italiana in Algeri at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. Wolfgang Wagner had already offered the centenary Bayreuth Ring to Ingmar Bergman, Peter Brook and Peter Stein by the time the cycle's conductor, Pierre Boulez, urged him to assign it to Chéreau. There was public outcry about two Frenchmen being asked to take charge at such an important moment in Germany's cultural history, but it was nothing compared to the furor that broke out on opening night of Das Rheingold. Chéreau had chosen to dispense with the generalized fairytale/mythological setting of so many past productions and transpose the action to Wagner's own time, with many references to the Industrial Revolution. (Chéreau's take on Wotan was inspired by Burt Lancaster's Don Fabrizio Corbera in Luchino Visconti's The Leopard.) Richard Peduzzi was hired to do the sets and Jacques Schmidt the costumes. The opening scene of Rheingold featured the Rhinemaidens not in mermaid costumes but as wily prostitutes working a hydro-electric power station on the Rhine. Siegfried pounded out Nothung with a mechanical hammer and dressed in a dinner jacket for his wedding; Wotan gained possession of the Ring by cutting off Alberich's hand, creating a huge spray of blood; the gods were characterized as being no nobler than the mortals. Despite the fact that Wieland Wagner had shaken up audiences with his minimalist Bayreuth Ring in the 1950s, it was a church social compared to the hell-storm unleashed by Chéreau. The production was hotly debated all over the world, and at Bayreuth, members of the audience actually got in fistfights over it. It was generally believed that while Chéreau's take might have been acceptable at a smaller, less important theater, the hallowed halls of Bayreuth had been permanently stained by it.
Following the final live Bayreuth performances — the production having lasted only until 1980 — the Ring was telecast in 1983, marking the first time that Wagner's cycle had ever been shown on television. By this time, it had already been recognized for what it was — a giant step forward for theatrical values in the opera house. "I think the Ring is first a theater piece," Chéreau said in an interview, adding, "It's more than a myth. Its basis is in old legends, but we have — as Wagner did — to use the legends. Each epoch finds legends it can use to understand itself."
Chéreau went on to work extensively in the theater and film. La Reine Margot, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas, père, was a sizable box-office hit and was honored at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, and Persécution (2009) was a story of a bizarre triangular relationship, starring Romain Duris and Charlotte Gainsbourg. He returned to opera only sporadically. There was a Lulu at the Opéra National de Paris in 1979, a bare-bones Wozzeck, from the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 1994, which OPERA NEWS, reviewing the DVD, found "more of an astute commentary on the opera than a performance of it." There was a highly acclaimed From the House of the Dead at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2007, which marked Chéreau's Met debut when it arrived in New York as one of the most universally admired imports of the Peter Gelb administration. In the summer of 2013, also at Aix, he directed his final opera production, Strauss's Elektra — which played in a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, where it will take the stage in a future season. Chéreau created a staging of monumental beauty and simplicity and character specificity; only moments after the opera began, the audience understood every single relationship among the serving maids. He also made Klytämnestera (Waltraud Meier) a tragic, conflicted figure, instead of the stock harpy. The opening-night audience at Aix responded with a prolonged standing ovation and only a few scattered boos; it was as fine an exit as any opera director could have asked.
In September 2013, Chéreau was named as one of the honorees of the ninth annual OPERA NEWS Awards, to be held on April 13, 2014. At the awards gala a tribute will be presented in Chéreau's memory.
More information can be found at Liberation.fr, Le Figaro, L'Express and Le Nouvel Observateur.
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