winter, the French National Library and the Paris Opera are presenting an
exhibition devoted to Patrice Chéreau, from his Parisian childhood, a period
marked by the artistic activities of his parents who were painters, to the
eleven operas that he directed for various international opera houses. In a
selection of a hundred and sixty exhibits, some of which are from the Patrice
Chéreau archives housed at the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine,
the exhibition retraces the major stages of his career as an opera director.
Encounter with the two curators of the exhibition, Sarah Barbedette and
How is the exhibition structured?
Sarah Barbedette et Pénélope Driant: The
exhibition is divided into three sections. First, an introductory section
evoking the pictorial world in which Chéreau grew up, as well as his first
experience of theatre at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. Next there is a large
chronological frieze, which allows the visitor to explore the different
creative processes used by Chéreau and his scenographer Richard Peduzzi for
each production. Finally, at the centre of the Rotunda, a grand thematic
conclusion entitled “La Fabrique de l’opéra” (the Opera Factory) highlights
Chéreau’s ambivalent relationship with opera, the importance of his directional
work with singers as well as his ideas
on the rapport between music and stage direction. In order to lead the visitor
behind the creative scenes, we have chosen exhibits of different types: working
notes, correspondence, scores and annotated libretti, studies for costumes and
sets, models for scenery, photographs and audio-visual extracts. A sketch for
the Radeau de la Méduse by Théodore
Géricault, a painting Chéreau was particularly fond of, is also a richly
significant piece in this exhibition.
The son of artists, both painters, Patrice Chéreau - actor, theatre and opera director and film maker, had a very rich personality… What is his hallmark as an opera director?
really tackled opera as a man of the theatre. When he agreed to direct his
first opera, he was nurturing the dream that opera could be “a form even more
theatrical than theatre itself”, a sort of “white-hot theatre”, brought to a
state of incandescence by the music. There is indubitably a before and after
Chéreau with regard to the direction of singers: he pushed them “to their
limits as singers”, directing them in a veritable full-body encounter in order to
lead them towards ever more sensitive interpretation, similar to that of real
actors. Finally, he fought hard for the singers to appear not to be looking at
the conductor. In his view, the singer’s gaze should be directed according to
the situation his character is experiencing, and not according to the technical
demands of singing.
When he directed an opera, Patrice Chéreau used to say that he was working with the “dynamic writing” of the music. How did he articulate the text and the music?
associated the text and the music very precisely: he believed that the stage
action should provoke and justify the music and not the opposite. To avoid any
tautology between the musical line and the stage action, he sometimes went so
far as to “contradict” the score, choosing to stage an aspect of the drama
which is not dealt with by the music.
What can one retain today of the operas that Chéreau staged for the Paris Opera?
must remember that his three productions for the Paris Opera were performed on
the stage of the Palais Garnier. Chéreau made his debut at the Paris Opera in
1974 with The Tales of Hoffmann,
of which he modified the libretto, giving rise to some adverse criticism. His
most legendary production for the Paris Opera was Lulu (1979), conducted by Pierre Boulez, particularly because it
was the world premiere of the third act, the orchestration of which was
completed after Alban Berg’s death. Così fan tutte in 2005 was his third Mozart opera, a co-production with the Festival
of Aix-en-Provence. Ultimately, Chéreau’s work for the Paris Opera testifies to
different, contrasting approaches to the repertoire. As for From the House
of the Dead, this is his only
production performed at the Opéra Bastille – although he had other projects for
the opera house when it opened. The entire cast was conceived with Patrice
Chéreau before he died in 2013.
After The Tales of Hoffmann, Rolf Liebermann described Patrice Chéreau as “the man who brings scandal in his wake, but the right scandal: scandal that strips down and pares away bad habits”. How were Chéreau’s productions received by opera audiences?
confrontation with the public, including that of the Paris Opera, was far from
simple. In his view, opera audiences were too conservative and opera did not
attract enough new spectators: at the time, many people came to the Opera not
to be surprised but to reassure themselves with a comfortable, and untouchable,
preconceived idea of the work. This is one of the reasons why Chéreau regularly
declared he would never touch opera
again. In the exhibition, we have devoted a display case to the critical
reception of his Wagner Ring Cycle: the resounding scandal of its first year in
1976, when Chéreau received dozens of insulting letters and even a death threat,
was followed in 1980 by international success, the final performance being
hailed by an hour-long ovation.
Finally, what were Patrice Chéreau’s relationships with his conductors?
conductors like Boulez, Barenboim or Salonen, he maintained a very close
collaboration, nourished by fecund and fruitful dialogue, and great mutual
respect. These conductors – among the greatest ever- were also ardent defenders
of the theatrical issue in opera, working towards the same objective as
Chèreau. For Chéreau, the question of the conductor he was to work with was a
primordial consideration in his decision as to whether to agree to stage an
opera or not. For the final part of the exhibition, we have chosen several
letters from his correspondence with conductors in order to underline the
extent to which the production of an opera is a work for four hands.
Your reading: Patrice Chéreau, opera director