Patrice Chéreau – from Scandal to Legend

But he was also someone who neither believed in the old principle, “Prima la musica, poi le parole,” nor in its opposite as basis for opera. He valued both equally.

In 1976, for the hundredth birthday of the Bayreuth Wagner Festival, Patrice Chéreau directed Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen, conducted by Pierre Boulez. Today, this “Centennial Ring” is a legend. In the first year of the performance, however, the production was a complete scandal, a fact easily forgotten. What Patrice Chéreau showed on the Festspielhaus stage was completely new for the public – and completely unprecedented. He moved the work to the time of the opera’s premiere, the end of the nineteenth century, and, in his character direction, broke with every previously accepted staging. All of the sudden, humans stood on the Wagnerian stage! Patrice Chéreau had demythologized The Ring and, with that, provoked the die-hard Wagnerians beyond all measure. But by the third year at the latest, the staging had become a unanimous and unquestionable success, eventually a legend, and something more: a benchmark for every subsequent production of The Ring up to today, not only in Bayreuth, but around the world.

In 1981, we were both to do Tristan and Isolde together in Bayreuth, but Patrice declined a year, openly stating: “After five years of the Ring, I simply can’t do Tristan. I am afraid that it would seem like a fifth part of the Ring, and the tetralogy would become a pentalogy! I need more distance.” Naturally, I understood this well enough – even if, in the end, this “distance” would last twenty-six years. It was only in 2007 that we could realize our Tristan, at the Teatro alla Scalla in Mailand. I was very happy with this work, above all because Patrice Chéreau analyzed the score with an extraordinary precision and, through this in-depth knowledge, could, so to speak, cut each individual character in the piece to measure. Moreover, he had understood that this opera is not merely a chamber piece. The intimate scenes between Isolde and Brangäne, between Kurwenal and Tristan became large and clear; even the public space and the physical space came into focus. I was also naturally thankful that the dying Tristan in the third act was not traveling in a rubber boat. Such silliness simply never happened with him.

Chéreau and myself cemented a 33-year friendship, and for me, he was one of the greatest directors. I especially treasured his ability to grapple with the tiniest details, as though it were precisely these that were the most important, not only in the work, but in general. His artistic personality was marked by a constructive fanaticism, and it is perhaps due to this that we understood each other so well, for we have always worked very similarly in this aspect. On stage, there is the oft-cited danger of losing oneself in the details and losing sight of the whole. In my view, this is the wrong formulation. One achieves the large contours precisely through the treatment of the smallest details, through meticulous grappling, and coming to understand, in this way, the cohesion of these details, building the interconnections. Patrice worked as though under a microscope, with precisely such small looks and movements. This found and finds its correspondence in music, where the slightest rise in dynamics, the smallest shift in articulation, indeed, the slightest plasticity of tempo plays such a large role. Patrice Chéreau understood this like almost no one else.

But he was also someone who neither believed in the old principle, “Prima la musica, poi le parole,” nor in its opposite as basis for opera. He valued both equally.

The great difference between a play and an opera is that the director of an opera can neither control the tempo nor the volume. In the spoken theater, the director, himself, is the maestro of these elements, but in the opera, both are determined by the score. Therefore, it is often so important for theater directors to work in opera, andvice versa! For Chéreau, this was no problem, though he actually came to opera from spoken theater and from film. He was always in the position to utilize the time between individual musical phrases so as to make accessible to the singer a new mood or a new sensation. He had never concerned himself solely with those who sang precisely and who, in any case, stood in the center, but he was downright obsessive in shaping the reactions of the others. He worked fantastically with the choir – he sometimes had the members of the choir act as individuals on the stage, sometimes he distinguished them in groups, and sometimes he portrayed them as a unity. In the end, everything he did was multidimensional.

I believe that there are five elements that made Patrice Chéreau into such a great and inimitable director: first, his sharply rational capacity to read a text, to understand it, and, at the same time, to develop his own subtext without thereby destroying the “ur-text.” In his work, he always sought after and researched motivation: why did a singer or actor say this line, now, in this moment, what moved him? Second, he possessed a fabulous eye – he knew precisely how to make an event on stage exciting for the spectator. For example, he would never have the characters standing in a straight line on stage. Many directors commit this error and thus lose the thrill. But Chéreau was almost inspired by the idea of diagonality. Third, he had at his disposal a very good ear, even if he was not a musician. He was amazingly sensitive to music, and had a unique musical memory. Fourth, he had a tremendous heart and thus the ability to empathize with his singers and actors. He could experience, to a high degree, joy and sorrow along with his actors; he was highly sensible to human fears and emotions. And last but not least, he was marked by a wonderful gut sensibility, which was the basis of his character. All five elements are essential for a good director, and in Patrice Chéreau, they were united in a seldom-to-be-encountered equilibrium.

From our long friendship there also arose a direct collaboration with him as an actor, when he, together with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and myself, performed Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat, playing all three roles. He was tightly linked to the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. He helped us to dramatically rework out our concertante opera projects, and his elucidation of the first act of Valkyrie remains unforgettable for many of the musicians. It was as if, through his words alone, a live staging took place before our eyes. I saw Patrice for the last time in August, when he was visiting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at rehearsals in Sevilla.

I will miss him greatly.

Daniel Barenboim is the General Music Director of the Berlin State Opera.

This article appeared in the print edition of Die Zeit on 10 October, 2013.