Stephen O’Malley

RIP Patrice Chéreau

Posted: Oct 8, 2013

RIP Patrice Chéreau
RIP Patrice Chéreau
RIP Patrice Chéreau


Patrice Chéreau, Opera, Stage and Film Director, Dies at 68


Patrice Chéreau, a director whose iconoclastic theater, opera and film productions sometimes offered broad social critiques that made them both deeply provocative and widely influential, died on Monday in Paris. The French newspaper Libération reported that he died of lung cancer. He was 68.

Mr. Chéreau, who also acted and wrote for the screen, came to international prominence in 1976, when he staged a production of Wagner’s operatic tetralogy, “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” at Bayreuth, the festival Wagner founded, on the centenary of the first “Ring” cycle.

Wagner’s epic told of the ruthless interplay of ancient Norse gods in a world of mortals, giants, dragons and dwarves. But in his production, which was conducted by Pierre Boulez, Mr. Chéreau updated the action to the mid-19th century — Wagner’s time — and replaced some of the mythological scenery with industrial age machinery.

For Mr. Chéreau, the story was a Marxist allegory of capitalism and the exploitation of the working class. It was an approach he based partly on ideas that George Bernard Shaw explored in “The Perfect Wagnerite,” in 1898, but his staging — in Bayreuth, no less — was unlike anything Wagner fans had seen. Moreover, its audience was magnified when a film of the production was broadcast around the world (by PBS in the United States) and released on home video.

Audiences were split between those who were outraged and those who regarded Mr. Chéreau’s approach as unalloyed genius. That production, in any case, helped open the floodgates of directorial reinterpretation of opera, in which the original settings and relationships were reconfigured to represent a director’s viewpoint. That approach quickly became accepted in the opera world, and when his “Ring” cycle had its final performance at Bayreuth, in 1980, it was given a 45-minute standing ovation.

Mr. Chéreau was born on Nov. 2, 1944, in Lézigné, Maine-et-Loire, in western France, to parents who were both painters. He developed a passion for the theater as a child, and became manager of his high school theater when he was 15. When he was 19, and a student at the Sorbonne, he directed a production of Victor Hugo’s “Intervention” that was so successful that he left the university to start his own theater company in Paris.

He began directing in Italy and Germany in the early 1970s, and he had a few opera productions under his belt, including a staging of Offenbach’s “Contes d’Hoffmann” at the Paris Opera by the time he undertook his Bayreuth “Ring.”

Mr. Chéreau’s other opera productions include both of Berg’s operas — “Wozzeck” in Paris and Berlin, the three-act version of “Lulu” in Paris — as well as Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (at the Salzburg Festival) and “Così Fan Tutte” (at Aix-en-Provence) and Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (at La Scala). But he professed ambivalence about opera.

“Once or twice in your life, it’s a great opportunity to take on a 14-hour work,” he told The New York Times in 1985. ”You learn to have reflexes of steel. But opera consists merely of works from the past — and for audiences I don’t particularly like. Directing opera provides a pleasure akin to reviving the dead.”

Mr. Chéreau’s many films include “Flesh of the Orchid” (1975); “Queen Margot,” which won the 1994 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize; “Intimacy” (2001), which won the Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear award; “His Brother” (2003) and “Persécution” (2009).

He gave master classes in film at Columbia University, the City College of New York and the School of Visual Arts in 2003, and was president of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival the same year.

He was a guest curator at the Louvre in 2010.

Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, where Mr. Chéreau’s production of Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead” was staged in 2009, described Mr. Chéreau as “one of the most influential European directors of theater and opera of the last 50 years.

“He once jokingly told me,” Mr. Gelb said in an interview of Mr. Chéreau, “that he was responsible for the movement disparagingly referred to as ‘Eurotrash,’ because his production of the Ring at Bayreuth, which is now legendary, was the first kind of high-concept operatic production that radically transformed the action.”

Mr. Chéreau’s most recent production, a staging of Richard Strauss’s “Elektra,” which had its premiere this summer in Aix-en-Provence, is on the Metropolitan Opera’s schedule for 2016.

pic: The French director Patrice Chéreau in 1983. Gabriel Duval/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images