Monday, 7 October 2013

Patrice Chéreau - personal memories

Patrice Chéreau  (1944-2013) died today, just weeks from his 69th birthday. He had cancer, but was working until a few weeks ago when he directed a highly acclaimed Strauss Elektra at the Aix Festival, which alas is not available in the UK, which must mean that someone's had the sense to record it for DVD. Please, someone outside UK, tell me about it (it's on

There's so much about him on the net that I don't need to write more, but HERE is a link to an article Patrice Chéreau, temps qu’à faire .And even more,  A Director genuinely devoted o his art. .

My personal memories of him go back to 1978 when I saw his Lulu, the first staging of the three act version of Berg's opera. I couldn't get my head round the third act then, but now have come to regard it as visionary. (read more  about that production here).

Chéreau's Wagner Das Ring des Nibelungen created for Bayreuth, Wolfgang Wagner and Pierre Boulez is the stuff of legend.  In 1976, DVD didn't exist, so it was years before we could catch up.  What a shock that must have been at the time! No wonder it caused a sensation. It's complete nonsense, as wikipedia says, that modern directors just transpose productions into different times. Wikipedia has been hijacked by trolls. Chéreau's  productions worked because they went to the heart of the drama, and were musically sensitive.

He was an actor, too, who understood how things worked from practical experience. In 2008, Daniel Barenboim persuaded him to take part in Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat at the BBC Proms. Guy Braunstein, no less, played the "fiddle". Boulez was watching from a box, and stood up at the front. Chéreau’s delivery was perfect, pungent and pointed. He was earthy enough to convey the “sense” of the peasant soldier, reinforcing the way Stravinsky writes into this music echoes of a raucous village band. The angular, quirky rhythms turn the steady trudge of footsteps into a bizarre, macabre dance of death. Chéreau is so attuned to the musical logic that his spoken lines take on the same, jerky staccato. These are not verité rhythms of speech., but presenting this in any language other than French spoils the cadences

One of the things I respected about Chéreau was that he did what he believed in rather than just doing things because they were there. He was primarily a man of the theatre, though he understood music and worked with only the best. Pierre Boulez persuaded him to return to opera with him in 2007, when he conducted Janacek's From the House of the Dead.  Everyone in the opera world seemed to be in the audience. It was outstanding“totally relevant for our time”, as Chéreau said later in his interview with Pierre Audi. Someone asked why he didn’t make it into a parable about Guantanamo Bay, for instance and he said “No, this is universal - orange jumpsuits would only mute the wider implications”. In an impish aside, Boulez quipped “and orange is the colour of Holland”. It’s a good point, because a single image can often have multiple meanings. 

This production was created with perceptive depth, with everything in it designed to amplify meaning. For example, the prisoners are engaged in pointless repetitive work – shipbuilding in Siberia, no less. Instead of a huge construction, which would dominate and distract, Chéreau explodes a bomb out of which cascade streams of waste paper, which the prisoners collect in bags. The explosion coincides with a huge, dramatic climax in the music, and the “gleaning” movements in the repetitive figures. This close integration between music and staging reflects the way Boulez and Chéreau work together. From the outset, Boulez and Chereau were both at rehearsals, so the ideas developed with an understanding of the full orchestral score. Actors were used to explore the body language and dynamic of the characters, so the singers had more to work with when developing their vocal approaches. “Coherence”, said Chéreau, "between ideas, music and drama, is the basis of the interpretation. The eagle, for example, is a critical symbol. It would be easy to go for a “happy ending” with the bird flying free, but it would be simplistic.

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