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Patrice Chéreau

F. PAUL DRISCOLL salutes the French director of theater, film and opera, whose revolutionary, transformative work on the opera stage is being honored with a posthumously bestowed OPERA NEWS Award.

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Chéreau, on location in Paris for his film Gabrielle, 2005
© Photos 12/Alamy 2014
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Patrice Chéreau believed that "staging a work is a question, first and foremost, of knowing how to tell a story." That was just what Chéreau did — in films, in theater and in opera — in a career that began when he was in his teens and lasted almost fifty years. He often quoted the advice he was given by his early mentor, playwright Roger Planchon: "Never stop working." Chéreau continued to work until shortly before his death from cancer in October 2013; his last opera-house project, a staging of Richard Strauss's Elektra, opened to great acclaim in Aix in July 2013 and arrives at La Scala next month.

Chéreau's work was nearly impossible to classify: he didn't have a signature visual style or specialize in the work of a particular composer or playwright. He could direct on an epic scale or an intimate one. What set him apart was his intelligence, his rigorous discipline and — despite his abundant charm and personal warmth — the melancholy that charged his uncompromising examination of human relationships. Isabelle Huppert, the star of Chéreau's 2005 film Gabrielle, once said, "There is pain in his art — in his art, in his cinema, in his theater and the way he puts on opera, too." Chéreau wanted his actors, whether on film or in the opera house, to do what they had not done before. "I don't care if [actors] surprise me, although it is nice. It is their job to surprise the audience." Chéreau's work was unsettling: just as he wanted his artists to look deep within themselves — to "hit bare bones," as Huppert described it — he wanted his audiences to be as completely present as his actors. "This is real theater," he said, "when the audience and the artists are engaged in the story together." 

Chéreau attended the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where at fifteen he started a theater group and gained his first experience as actor, manager, director and designer. Within a few years, when he was a nineteen-year-old student at the Sorbonne, Chéreau directed a staging of Victor Hugo's comedy L'Intervention that was so successful he decided to put aside his studies in favor of a career in the theater. Chéreau was soon recognized within the French theater world as a prodigious talent, an enfant terrible whose personal repertoire as a stage director was a wide-ranging yet discriminating mix of new works — he was an early champion of the work of playwright Bernard–Marie Koltès — and classics, including plays by Marivaux, Molière, Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. It was Chéreau's French theater work, marked by daring visual imagination and uncompromising political awareness, that brought him to the attention of Pierre Boulez, who had signed on to conduct the centennial Ring cycle at the Bayreuth Festival, scheduled to open in 1976. Boulez, who intended to interpret Wagner's score with a clarity and transparency previously unheard at Bayreuth, was not interested in collaborating on a "traditional" Ring, offering the observation that "Tradition is nothing but mannerisms, transmitted to the next generation in the worst possible way." 

When Chéreau was invited by Wolfgang Wagner to come to Bayreuth, his first instinct was to refuse the offer: he had directed only two operas, neither of them by Wagner, and would have just four months to prepare the full Ring cycle for rehearsal and performance. Chéreau decided to ignore the risks and tell the story as simply as possible. 

He set the Ring operas against the background of the Industrial Revolution, signaling its debasement of mankind with scenery that evoked a dammed-up river, a coal mine and a nineteenth-century tenement. The production was vibrant, witty and unapologetically political: Chéreau's Ring was so specific, so profoundly human, that he restored the cycle's viability as drama. Chéreau treated his singers like actors, explaining, "I discovered that it was not only possible but necessary to have [the Ring singers] act. Then I was in my element. It was not an opera — it was my work."

Although the Chéreau Ring is now properly regarded as a historic achievement, it was not an immediate popular success: the selection of a thirty-one-year-old French leftist (who chewed gum during staging rehearsals) to direct at Bayreuth was seen by some as an act of sacrilege. But the controversy proved stimulating: even Winifred Wagner, who told Chéreau that she loathed his production, admitted, "Isn't it better to be furious than to be bored?" In later years, Chéreau was always swift to counter praise for his Bayreuth triumph with the memory that he had been booed in 1976; a modest man, he left it to others to point out that by the time the cycle had its last Bayreuth performance, in 1980, it was greeted with a forty-five-minute standing ovation. Thanks to the worldwide television broadcast of Brian Large's brilliant 1980 film of the Chéreau Ring, the stagingwas seen by millions — the biggest audience that the Ring had ever had.

When the Met presented Chéreau's staging of Janáček's From the House of the Dead in 2009, I attended six of the seven performances; each time, I was profoundly unsettled by the bleak world that Chéreau and his designers had created yet exhilarated by the clarity of his vision and the firm, swift cut of its execution. The break between Acts I and II was marked with a stunning coup-de-théâtre: the ceiling of the set collapsed, filling the stage with debris and the air with rising dust. The profound, shocked silence that greeted that moment at every show stopped time. The audience was completely engaged — it was real, unforgettable theater. spacer 

F. PAUL DRISCOLL

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2