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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Obituary: Patrice Chéreau (1944-2013)

French opera director forged legendary Bayreuth Ring.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A scene from Patrice Chéreau's production of Das Rheingold 
with Alberich (Hermann Becht) flanked by "working girl" Rhinemaidens.
Image ©  1980 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Classics.
Patrice Chéreau, the French director who revolutionized the staging of Wagner operas with his 1976 production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen died yesterday of lung cancer. He was 68.

Mr. Chéreau shot to international fame with his staging of the Ring, which re-imagined Wagner's medieval legends as a modern economic parable. Gods became greedy industrialists. Nibelungs: oppressed factory workers. As Das Rheingold opened, the Rhinemaidens were reimagined as street hustlers, plying their trade in front of a huge hydroelectric dam.

The revisions continued into the later operas. In Act I of Die WalküreHunding was accompanied by an army of Mafia goons. Siegfried forged his sword on a factory floor, with the aid of industrial drop-furnace (left by Wotan) and then battled a toy dragon. The climactic scenes of Götterdämmerung took place in front of a block of tenements more suited to West Side Story than the Rhineland.

The production, mounted at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Ring's premiere, was vilified by early audiences, but grew to become one of the most popular and celebrated versions of the Ring. It also ushered in an era of Regietheater in opera, where the vision of the director sometimes superseded the text of the libretto or the composer's original intent. This can be viewed as both a positive and negative in the development of opera as drama in the last three decades.

Working in close collaboration with conductor Pierre Boulez, Mr. Chéreau's vision persevered against attacks, death threats and outright xenophobia from opera-goers who did not went to see their beloved German operas in the hands of French artists. Frederic Spotts' book Bayreuth even cites an opera-goer who brought a sign reading "Chereau and Boulez. Boulez and Chereau. Would that they destroy each other", paraphrasing a line in Act II of Siegfried.

The success of his Bayreuth production springboarded Mr. Chéreau into the front ranks of opera directors. Performances of Ring became the first production of the opera to be preserved on videotape and released for home consumption. Later stagings included Don Giovanni and Janacek's From The House of the Dead which first appeared at Salzburg and later at the Metropolitan Opera. Thus far, this is the director's only work to be mounted at the Metropolitan Opera. Through a long career, Mr. Chereau always courted controversy, drawing critical and public acclaim.

The Met will offer Mr. Chéreau's production of Elektra (staged earlier this year at Aix-en-Provence) as part of their 2016 season.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.