Chéreau's former assistant, Peter McClintock has the job of reviving From the House of the Dead in this
legendary production of Janáček's opera, after the death of its stage director.
We talked to him before the first rehearsals at the Opéra Bastille.
How did you meet Patrice Chéreau?
Patrice in 2006. He had come to New York while he was preparing From the House of the Dead. He was looking for an assistant
who could work with him for the première at the Wiener Festwochen in 2007 and
for all the revivals. I had admired his work for a long time, ever since seeing
his Ring at Bayreuth in 1976. I also
loved his films. He interviewed a handful of applicants before choosing me. I
don't know why he picked me that day, but I can say that it was the most
fascinating collaboration with an opera director I've had in my career.
We know how rarely Patrice Chéreau directed opera, and how meticulously he chose the works in the repertory that he staged. What made him decide to take on From the House of the Dead?
He told me himself that when Stéphane Lissner suggested
the piece to him, the fact that Pierre Boulez was involved in the project was
decisive. Patrice and Pierre had a fabulous working relationship. Patrice shared
his knowledge of the text and his analysis of it with Pierre, and Pierre shared
his incredible analysis of the music with Patrice.
Patrice Chéreau had a very close relationship with Dostoyevsky. Shortly before From the House of the Dead, he read Notes from Underground on the stage of the Bouffes du Nord theatre. Was Dostoyevsky present in your thinking?
Patrice always had a copy of the novel with him. He used
to read it and reread it to try and get as deep as possible into the original
material. What I found extraordinary working with him was his absolute devotion
to the text. He endlessly sought indications and responses. When he came up
against a problem of staging, or didn't know how to tackle a scene, his
reaction was always to go back to the text. The entire libretto of the opera
was a reduction of the original work, except for two or three phrases. Patrice constantly
went back to Dostoyevsky to understand the choices made by the composer. He described
Janáček's libretto as a collage of various episodes from the novel, which
Janáček had put in a different order. He felt he particularly needed to work on
the construction of the transitions, not just from one scene to another but
from one act to another. He particularly worked on the story of Goryanchikov and Aleyeya, wanting to explore it
exhaustively. That was his genius.
One of the features of the staging is the presence of sixteen actors on the set, who bring the prison area to life…
Patrice felt it was very important for this group of
sixteen actors not to stand out from the singers. He wanted the audience to be unable
to differentiate them visually. Soloists, chorus, actors and extras all had to
be part of the same prison population. He worked on the scenes with an incredible
attention to detail. He talked a great deal with the singers, so that they
could make their performance as "true" as possible.
How has the show changed with each revival?
The staging changed with the singers. Patrice was
keen to make use of their specific personalities to construct the roles. He
always wanted to make the show better, particularly the beginning of Act 3: the
tableau in which Goryanchikov watches
over Aleyeya, which is supposed
to take place in the infirmary. With the first production in Vienna, this scene
was different from what it later became. When we began rehearsals at the Metropolitan
Opera in 2009, two years after the première, he was very keen to give precise form
to this space.
How do you tackle a revival when the director has died?
When From the House of the Dead was performed again in Berlin, three years ago, it was the first time we had done the production since Patrice's death. We had the distinct feeling he was there, somewhere. Every time we mentioned one of his ideas, his daunting work or his profound analyses, we felt his presence. And amazingly, most of the artists performing in that revival had worked with Patrice: 16 of the 19 singers, and all the actors. It was an incredible, marvellous feeling to be part of keeping his spirit alive.