Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Two reminiscences concerning the late Patrice Chéreau

Here speaks an opera director, that is, one as alert to the requirements of Wagner's music as to those of his poem:
... the orchestra pit [should] be, like Delphi’s smoking pit, a crevice uttering oracles – the Funeral March and the concluding redemption motif. The redemption motif is a message delivered to the entire world, but like all pythonesses, the orchestra is unclear, and there are several ways in which one might interpret its message. … Should one not hear it with mistrust and anxiety?

Indeed, writing in 1873 about his conception of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus then under construction, Wagner had expanded in similar terms upon his discussion nine years earlier with Gottfried Semper, concerning the abortive Munich Festival Theatre for Ludwig II. Between proscenium and audience would lie a ‘mystical abyss’, out of which the sounds of the concealed orchestra should emerge as an aural equivalent to the steam that once had risen from Gaia’s primæval womb, underneath the seat of the Pythia. Whether Chéreau knew that relatively obscure piece by Wagner, Das Bühnenfestspielhaus zu Bayreuth, is in a sense immaterial. Either he had alighted upon the similarity by study or by musico-theatrical intuition; either way, it speaks of a directorial kinship rare indeed.

Equally important to the success of the ‘Centenary’ Ring was, of course, the collaboration with Boulez. The composer-conductor, a true successor to Wagner and Mahler, spent a great deal of time on the score with Chéreau. Boulez, however, clearly learned a great deal from his director too. The following observation was clearly derived – as Boulez acknowledges – from their discussions:

There have been endless discussions as to whether this conclusion is pessimistic or optimistic; but is that really the question? Or at any rate can the question be put in such simple terms? Chéreau has called it ‘oracular’, and it is a good description. In the ancient world, oracles were always ambiguously phrased so that their deeper meaning could be understood only after the event, which, as it were, provided a semantic analysis of the oracle’s statement. Wagner refuses any conclusion as such, simply leaving us with the premisses for a conclusion that remains shifting and indeterminate in meaning.

We rarely hear anything but praise for this production now, though there will doubtless always be a few irreconcilables. Yet it is salutary to recall how bitterly contested the Boulez-Chéreau Ring was at the time, especially in its first year, 1976. It is always worth asking ourselves whether we are likely to appear ridiculous, on the wrong side of history, in our fearful judgements, rejecting just that with which Wagner, Chéreau, and Boulez challenged us: 'a conclusion that remains shifting'.

The only time I saw Chéreau, a highly talented actor in his own right, perform was at the Proms five years ago. It was an unforgettable occasion both as a concert in itself, and on account of the connections between those involved: Daniel Barenboim, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Chéreau, and Boulez. I reproduce below my report on the concert:

Prom 39: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim, 14 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Boulez – Mémoriale (‘... explosante-fixe ...’ Originel)
Stravinsky – L’histoire du soldat (in French)

Guy Eshed (flute)
Patrice Chéreau (narrator)
Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

The genesis of Mémoriale is complicated and protracted even by Boulez’s standards. A simplified presentation would say that it emerged as a piece for solo flute, two horns, and six strings, as a memorial for Ensemble Intercontemporain flautist, Lawrence Beauregard, the material originating in the ‘kit’ for ‘... explosante-fixe’, itself intended as a memorial for Stravinsky and therefore especially apposite for the present programme. Electronics thus play no part, although they do in ‘... explosante-fixe ...’, yet an interesting aspect of this performance was how much the strings were suggestive of such means. They also produced a beautiful halo-like impression, albeit with a properly Boulezian sense of the febrile. The music, to which all instrumentalists contributed with great sensitivity, captured an equally Boulezian sense of the shimmering and ever-expanding, serial music – and that of Boulez in particular –being characterised by its unending possibilities for continuation, development, and liberation from fixed endings. Guy Eshed was an outstanding soloist, both musically and technically. None of the intricacies of Boulez’s exquisite, almost culinary line held any fear for him, but this was never virtuosity for its own sake. Inevitable reminiscences of Debussy added to the finely-honed, ineffable ‘Frenchness’ of this excellent performance. It was touching to have Boulez in the audience come to the stage in order to share in the applause.

Boulez and Barenboim have been close musical collaborators and friends ever since they performed Bartók’s First Piano Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1964. Patrice Chéreau’s name will ever be linked with that of Boulez as a result of their collaboration on the legendary ‘Centenary-Ring’ at Bayreuth, the first production of the three-act version of Lulu, and more recently, a universally-acclaimed From the House of the Dead; Chéreau also once acted as narrator for a 1980 Ensemble Intercontemporain performance of L’histoire du soldat under Boulez. Links with Barenboim have also been strong, including productions of Wozzeck, Don Giovanni, and most recently Tristan und Isolde. These various interconnections added another layer of interest to the intelligent programming. It is fair to say that this was above all Chéreau’s performance. He threw himself with such gusto into his roles as narrator, soldier, and Devil, that one could almost see the missing puppets. Charles Ferdinand Ramuz’s text was not always adhered to word for word, but that did not matter in the slightest. One sensed the genius of Chéreau as a director, an animateur, and indeed he proved himself no mean actor. (He actually appeared on stage as Siegfried at Bayreuth on one occasion, whilst a replacement tenor sang from the wings.) This was a visual performance too, which made it seem such a pity that many members of the audience rarely looked up from the text and translation in the programme. I suspect that one would have discerned most of what was going on from Chéreau’s expressivity even if one understood not a word of French. As the work progresses, it becomes more musical in nature. Barenboim and his players proved fine exponents of this extraordinary score. Its potent mix of rhythmic insistence, thematic and colouristic economy and yet expressivity, and of course its instant, nagging memorability, was captured well throughout. Guy Braunstein returned, to play on the Devil’s own instrument; his performance was everything one might have expected. I was also especially impressed by Dan Moshayev’s contribution on percussion. But all of the players contributed a great deal, both in solo and ensemble terms. Barenboim clearly trusted enough in their abilities to permit them considerable leeway at times, whilst directing them strongly where required. More than once I thought of Busoni in terms of the harmonies and general ambience. Barenboim has considerable experience with Busoni’s music, so a sense of kinship between the Italian composer’s Junge Klassität and a work heading towards Stravinskian neo-classicism may not have been surprising; that does not make it any the less welcome. There might sometimes have been greater aggression to be heard in so polemical a score than one heard here, but this remained an excellent performance. It projected well into the capricious, cavernous expanses of the Royal Albert Hall too.