Monday, 18 December 2017

Postcard from Paris

‘Patrice Chéreau: Staging the Opera’, Paris Opéra Garnier; Janacek, From The House of the Dead, Paris Opéra Bastille, directed by Patrice Chéreau, conducted by Esa-Pekka-Salonen, with Willard White, Erik Stoklossa, Stefan Margita, Ladislav Elgr and Peter Mattei

This autumn the Paris Opera is paying tribute to the great opera and theatre director Patrice Chéreau with a revival of his production of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead at the Opéra Bastille, together with an exhibition devoted to his work, ‘Patrice Chéreau: Staging the Opera’, co-presented with the National Library of France at the Bibliothèque-Musée of the Opéra Garnier, and a cycle of video-screenings at the Studio Bastille of the operas he directed in their entirety. Last weekend I was lucky enough to be in Paris and took in a screening of Das Rheingold, a visit to the exhibition and a performance of From the House of the Dead.

I was in my early twenties when I first saw the controversial 1976–1980 Bayreuth Ring cycle directed by Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez that was filmed by the BBC in 1980 and broadcast on the ABC in 1985, and it remains a definitive experience for me in terms of the staging of Wagner, and indeed opera and theatre generally.

The uncompromisingly modernist composer-conductor Boulez (who in 1952 had denounced any contemporary composer who did not understand the ‘necessity’ of serialism as ‘irrelevant’) had been invited by Wagner’s grandson Wolfgang to conduct the ‘Centenary Ring’ (so-called because it marked one hundred years since the first production by Wagner himself). Boulez asked the relatively inexperienced 32-year-old Chéreau to direct the cycle after Ingmar Bergman, Peter Brook and Peter Stein had all turned it down. Indeed Chéreau almost did likewise as he was left with only four months to stage the entire 18 hours of music-drama that make up the four operas in the cycle. Nevertheless he set to, and with the support of Boulez embarked on what became truly ‘the Ring of the century’.

The controversy that ensued even before opening night was as much about Boulez’s conducting – which stripped away the varnish of tradition and demanded chamber-music-like clarity in place of the slower speeds and thicker textures favoured by previous conductors – as it was about Chéreau’s directing. The latter encouraged an intimate, emotionally connected and physically expressive acting-style from the cast that complemented Boulez’s laser-like approach to the score.

Most controversial of all however was the staging (created in collaboration with Chéreau’s regular set designer Richard Peluzzi and costume designer Jacques Schmidt), which set the operas broadly during the era in which they were written – the rise of industrial capitalism – but also incorporated deliberate anachronisms that extended back into the eighteenth century and forward into the twentieth. In the very opening scene of Das Rheingold, the Rhine was represented by a huge hydroelectric dam, on which the Rhine-Maidens loitered in the guise of nineteenth-century prostitutes, while Alberich lurked beneath them like an overcoat-wearing tramp. In subsequent scenes, the Gods were dressed like decadent periwigged aristocrats and the dwarves like oppressed proletarian miners; and when Wotan stole the gold from Alberich it was packed into clear plastic bags like trash, or a consignment of heroin. The prevailing atmosphere (enhanced by André Diot’s lighting design) was one of penumbral gloom and impending destruction; the over-arching theme that of greed and the lust for power in conflict with the forces of nature and love.

Chéreau’s preoccupations (like Wagner’s) were both psychological and political; indeed his interpretation was not imposed but inspired by a scrupulous attention to the text (and supported by Boulez’s equally scrupulous attention to the score). In fact the whole (mostly French) creative team accomplished an even more thorough ‘de-Nazification’ of Wagner than had been attempted by Wolfgang and his brother Wieland Wagner in their own previous post-war productions, which had used abstract sets and lighting in order to purge the works of their associations with German nationalism and pseudo-medievalist folklore.

Seeing all this anew on a big screen, I was overwhelmed by the sheer force of Chéreau’s vision. I was also riveted once more by the performances: the twisted German Expressionist physicality of Heinz Zednik’s crow-like Loge; the simple dignity and fierce outrage of Herman Becht’s Alberich; the pathos of Matti Salminen’s Fasolt, his giant puppet-hands hanging impotently beside him; and the morally conflicted Wotan of the great New Zealand bass-baritone Donald McIntyre.

Chéreau’s gift was to see The Ring as a deeply human tragedy, in which all the characters emerged as flawed but complex and ultimately sympathetic creatures, regardless of their social class or allegorical status as gods, dwarves or humans. This arguably made him more of a philosophical humanist than an aesthetic modernist. It certainly differentiates him from many of his postmodern followers in so-called ‘director’s theatre’.  


The exhibition ‘Patrice Chéreau: Staging the Opera’ at the Opéra Garnier describes a chronological journey from Chéreau’s formative years to his first experimental opera stagings of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri at Spoleto and Tales of Hoffmann at the Paris Opéra Garnier; the watershed Ring cycle; Berg’s Lulu (again with Boulez, and set in the 1930s); Mozart’s rarely-staged Lucio Silla; Berg’s Wozzek (conducted by Barenboim and featuring a semi-abstract set by Peduzzi consisting of mobile geometric cubes); a monumental Don Giovanni and radically minimalist Così fan tutte; a renewed collaboration with Boulez on The House of the Dead immediately followed by a return to Wagner with Tristan; and finally (in the last year of his life) Strauss’s Elektra (with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting). Archival images and documents, interviews and rehearsal footage are complemented by video selections of key passages from many of the productions.

The first section of the exhibition situates his work as a director in the context of his abiding interest in visual art, especially painting. Both his parents were artists and acknowledged mentors for the young Chéreau, who was deeply influenced by the allegorical and apocalyptic works of Bosch and Brueghel: the latter’s painting of The Blind Leading the Blind is alluded to when the Gods enter Valhalla at the end of Das Rheingold, and the image of a human chain of folly is repeated in the staging of other operas (as it was by Bergman in the closing shot of The Seventh Seal). He was also drawn to Romantic painters like Géricault and Goya, especially the former’s Raft of the Medusa and the latter’s Disasters of War; and the influence of both is visible in Chéreau’s staging of groups, crowd scenes and images of collective catastrophe. Even more telling was his fascination with paintings attributed to the pseudonymous early 17th Century Neapolitan Monsu Desiderio, whose apocalyptic landscapes and ghostly ruins clearly influenced the ambience and set design for the Ring; and Brünnhilde’s rock in Die Walküre was redesigned during the season to resemble the cliffs that loom over the 19th Century Swiss Symbolist Böcklin’s mysterious Isle of the Dead. In short: a preoccupation with allegory, disaster, ruins, the grotesque and macabre marks Chereau’s visual imagination from the start, and complicates any simple reading of him as inspired solely by humanist psychology or even politics.

Wandering through the rest of the exhibition, I was struck by the relatively small number of operas Chéreau chose to direct, and by his protean approach to staging and design. Nevertheless there were continuities: an ongoing refusal of conventional wisdom about individual works or characters, and significant collaborations with particular artists, including Peduzzi, Boulez, Barenboim and singers (especially women) with an interest in exploring complex roles – including Gwyneth Jones (Brünnhilde), Teresa Stratas (Lulu) and Waltraud Meier (Eva in Wozzek, Isolde and finally Klytaemnestra in Elektra).

Throughout the exhibition, documents and footage attest to Chéreau’s ambivalent relationship with opera itself, his insistence on its theatrical nature (which he described paradoxically as ‘more theatrical than theatre’), his relentless focus on textual as well as musical fidelity, and his detailed attention to emotional and physical connection, movement and the body. A central installation focuses on Chéreau’s rehearsal process as a director, especially when working with singers. Notes from rehearsals insist on the necessity of singing and acting as if not knowing in advance what the character is going to say or do next; and rehearsal footage shows him continually on the floor with performers (choruses and crowds as well as soloists), touching them, manipulating them, moving with them and communicating using his own body as well as words. Chéreau’s own ongoing experience as an actor is evident here, but also his commitment to visual-spatial, kinesthetic and tactile forms of expression. An unforgettable instance of this (shown on video in the final alcove of the exhibition) is the performance of Teresa Stratas as Lulu when she meets her death at the hands of Jack the Ripper, her body arching on the end of his knife until she comes to rest upside-down on her hands and feet like a spider, and then remains there frozen until the end of the opera.


Chéreau’s production of From the House of the Dead was originally staged in Vienna in 2007 and conducted by Pierre Boulez. It’s been revived in Paris by Chéreau’s former assistant Peter McClintock and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The production is a fitting testament to Chéreau’s work, and in some ways a culmination of his approach to opera and its underlying philosophy

Janacek’s final opera is based on Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel about the four years he spent as a political prisoner in a Siberian labour camp. The opera is an ensemble work in three acts (90 minutes without interval) that eschews traditional protagonists or plot in favour of a series of scenic tableaux, each punctuated by a different prisoner’s story of crime and punishment, which has essentially come to define what remains of their identity.

The abrupt juxtaposition of scenes, choruses, monologues and random events (fights, beatings, humiliations, occasional acts of compassion or distraction – the nursing of an injured eagle, or a crude pantomime put on by the prisoners) mirrors Janacek’s musical language, which consists of jagged and repetitive phrases, sometimes shrilly mocking but at other times full of aching beauty. It also reflects the meaningless routine of existence inside the camp – an existence from which there is no hope of release for most of its inmates except in death. Or rather, as the title indicates, it is as if they are already dead.

Chéreau had his own fascination with Dostoyevsky (whose eschatological vision must have appealed to him much like that of Bosch or Breughel); in fact he had recently given a public reading of Notes from Underground in Paris at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. To stage the opera, he went back to the novel in order to flesh out Janacek’s terse libretto, which consists of extracts from Dostoyevsky rearranged in a kind of collage.

He also augmented the cast of 19 singers with 16 non-singing actors, and used improvisation to develop action, characters and relationships. The result is that the actors move more or less indistinguishably among the singers (most of the cast from the original Vienna production reappear in the Paris revival). This crowd of mostly nameless figures remains almost permanently onstage, occasionally exiting or entering through temporary gaps that appear in Richard Peduzzi’s set of towering grey faceless walls that embrace the stage (once more recalling the cliffs in Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead) and shift position minimally between the Acts. Otherwise the prisoners are effectively immured in an abstract architecture of pain, the severity of its lines and forms heightened by Bertrand Couderc’s stark lighting design.

Costumes by Caroline de Vivaise are basically drab, worn-out contemporary street-clothes, except for the odd visiting Russian Orthodox priest, or the prison guards, whose uniforms are unidentifiable. Chéreau and his designers also took inspiration from photojournalist Luc Delahaye’s harrowing book of photographs Winterreise, taken while travelling across the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. The result is a visual world which evokes the gulags and death camps of the 20th Century as much as it does the labour camps of Tsarist Russia – and beyond these, the military prisons and detention centres that still exist today, even under the jurisdiction of so-called democracies. A particularly pitiful scene involves the prisoners (who are all male – the only women who visit the camp are the commandant’s wife and a prostitute) entering in various states of undress after washing in the river; the lack of shame in their nudity recalling countless similar images.

Despite that fact that what is being represented is a form of ‘mass’ experience that reduces individuality to its barest outlines, several characters, micro-narratives and performances stand out. The African-American bass-baritone Willard White is noble and understated as Goriantchikov, an aristocratic political prisoner and new arrival at the camp. Eric Stoklossa is a touching and clear-voiced Alieia, the young Tartar prisoner who saves Goriantchikov’s spectacles when the latter is stripped and beaten at the order of the camp commandant, and who is later taught to read by the more well-educated older man. Baritone Stefan Margita gives a haunting performance as the aggressive Louka, who was sentenced for killing an officer in the army and eventually dies of fever in the prison hospital. Tenor Ladislav Elgr is a physically and vocally compelling Kouratov, who murdered a rich German for stealing his beloved Louisa, and later goes mad. And finally in Act 3 there is a stand-out performance from the great Swedish baritone Peter Mattei as Chichkov, who in a massive 20-minute monologue tells the story of how he murdered his wife because she still loved another man who boasted (falsely) of taking her virginity (and who in a final twist of fate turns out to be the dying Louka).

Esa-Pekka Salonen directed a terse, incisive reading of Janacek’s wrenching and often brutal score, which even includes the sound of the prisoners’ chains as percussion instruments. But above all the production belongs to the late Chéreau, whose unflinching gaze penetrated to the depths of this bleak work and conveyed its fundamental message of compassion and survival.


From The House of the Dead closed on December 2 at the Paris Opéra Bastille. The exhibition ‘Patrice Chéreau: Staging the Opera’ runs until March 3 at the Opéra Garnier. Patrice Chéreau died in 2013, aged 68.

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