Reviving From the house of the Dead

Conversation with Peter McClintock — By Simon Hatab and Lison Noël

As Patrice 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?

I met 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.

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