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Once controversial, since his death in 2013 at age 68, the French opera and theatre director Patrice Chéreau has attained monumental status in his homeland. A November 2016 colloquium at the Sorbonne in Paris resulted in the present volume of meditations about Chéreau’s pensive innovations. It was followed by an exhibit, Patrice Chéreau: Staging the Opera, at the Paris Opera Library-Museum in the Palais Garnier from November 2017 to March 2018. This was accompanied by an illustrated album (Patrice Chéreau, mettre en scène l'opéra, Actes Sud publishers; 2017).

Focusing on the wider societal impact of the director’s sometimes trendy imaginings, Patrice Chéreau en son temps goes into detail that will gratify the most exacting operaphile. Robert Piencikowski, an Honorary Lecturer in Music at Cardiff University, notes that Chéreau’s most celebrated work in opera remains his staging of the centenary Ring cycle at the Bayreuth Festival in 1976. Yet he was not the conductor Pierre Boulez’s first choice for the job. Apparently Boulez floated the names of Peter Brook and Ingmar Bergman as ideal collaborators, and only when these did not work out did the festival settle for Chéreau.

The music historian Élise Petit underlines that one of the reasons for the success of Chéreau’s centenary Ring was his fresh approach, because he ‘scarcely knew’ the work, although he had fully researched the 19th-century German culture and society that produced Wagner. Chéreau was equally innocent of recent stagings of the Ring, so he focused instead on the libretto, juxtaposing it with notions from 18th-century philosophers of the German Enlightenment and proto-Romanticism, as well as Teutonic mythology and modern theoreticians as Theodor Adorno.

The film historian Françoise Zamour suggests that the vividness of Chéreau’s staging of such characters as Wotan in The Ring or Klytaemnestra in Strauss’s Elektra was properly cinematic. Like Chéreau’s films, these operatic characters expressed ideas about war, violence, history, and totalitarianism, drawn from texts by Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, and the historian Ernst Kantorowicz.

The musicologist Grégoire Tosser notes how when staging Strauss’s Elektra at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2013, the ever- bookish Chéreau observed that in the final scene, Hofmannsthal’s libretto describes the title character’s dance as ‘indescribable’ (namenlos), but Strauss provides recognisable waltz rhythms. From this kind of semiotic puzzle, Chéreau constructed complex spectacles, taking the audience into his confidence as if they were all secretly brainy Gallic literary-cultural theoreticians at heart.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Opera Now, 2019 - ©Rhinegold Publishing