Human Truths

When Patrice Chéreau’s vision for Strauss’s early masterpiece Elektra premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2013, The New Yorker declared that the legendary director’s “signature attention to nuances of character humanizes a masterpiece that often seems grimly relentless.” Chéreau died of lung cancer a few months after the Elektra premiere, and it’s hard not to see the production as a kind of valedictory triumph. Certainly, that’s how the director’s close artistic collaborators view the project. For the new Elektra, Chéreau enlisted a team of artists with whom he’d been working since the early days of his career, including set designer Richard Peduzzi, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, and longtime assistant Vincent Huguet. Before the staging arrived at the Met in 2016, Peduzzi, Salonen, and Huguet spoke about Chéreau and his detailed approach to art, music, theater, and people. —Edited by Matt Dobkin

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Patrice and I had a very funny first meeting. It was more than 20 years ago, in Stockholm. I was recording Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, and I wanted the narrator to be somebody very well known and respected, a French speaker. And I thought, “Maybe I should ask Patrice Chéreau.” So I did, and he said, “Yes, okay, fine.” He turned up in Stockholm before the first rehearsal and said, “Okay, Esa-Pekka, how do you want me to do this?” I was completely embarrassed and stunned, and I said, “Patrice—you are Patrice Chéreau! You’re not asking me how to do this narration.” He said, “No, no, you must understand that I’m here as an actor, and actors need direction.” And I realized that he actually meant it. So, I said something like, “Well, maybe it should be kind of like a newscaster, telling the story very directly, not necessarily romantically.” And he said, “Okay, fine. I’ll do it like that.” So, that’s something I will tell my grandchildren—“I once directed Patrice Chéreau.”

Richard Peduzzi: The places I built and painted for Patrice’s sets arose from the impressions I have while walking, reading, listening to music, looking at paintings. Our theatrical explorations were part of our shared affinities, our friendship. Many times, before even speaking about a production, we discovered we had the same vision for it. It was not a system we had, he and I—it was a connection, a feeling.

Vincent Huguet: Patrice was obsessed by his work. For him, work and life was exactly the same thing. They were maybe two different ways to consider reality, but fundamentally they were the same. So in rehearsal, dealing with actors, with the text, with the world, with feelings, it was as if you forgot it was about a show, something that would happen on stage. The work was so deep, so precise, so human and moving. I think the characters Patrice was working on became like real people to him—he lived with them.

Patrice Chéreau in rehearsal for his 2009 Met staging of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead

ES: Besides the fact that Patrice was this incredibly talented, brilliant man, he was also very gentle, very humble, very easygoing, with a fine sense of humor. Very intense, but very honest also. And I was very happy when the idea of doing From the House of the Dead came up, which we worked on together at the Met and then later at La Scala. While we were in Milan, we had lunch and started talking about what to do next. But Patrice kept saying, “Oh, I’m done with opera. There are too many moving parts, it’s just too much hassle, and you have to compromise with this and that.” And I said, “Patrice, there is one thing that I think would be the very right piece for you, and I would love to do it with you.” “Oh, what is that?” I said, “Elektra.” And he said, “I’ll take a look.”

RP: After our initial conversation about Elektra, I read the text and then we spoke about the set. Very quickly, we agreed we wanted something contemporary but not very aggressive looking. I found some pictures in an antiques shop in Rome with exactly the right plan for Elektra. I sent them to Patrice and he was very happy. But he said, “Don’t you think that was too quick?” But that happened often for us. The approach usually came together very quickly.

ES: Patrice somewhat jokingly said to me that his approach to Elektra is that this is a normal family. It could be anybody’s family. It could be my family; it could be yours. And then he laughed, because it’s not a completely normal family, obviously. But he felt that people are really people. They’re not caricatures. They’re not monstrous. They are people, and they have their good sides and their bad sides, their dilemmas and their neuroses. But, also, every character has something good in them.

VH: I think one of the strongest reasons Patrice chose to do Elektra was that he was excited to create a new vision. He was really shocked and upset by the way most directors portrayed Klytämnestra, Elektra’s mother, as a kind of old hysterical witch. He saw this production as a way to look at the idea that people are never as you think they are. Maybe this woman is violent and she killed Agamemnon and all that—but maybe she had very good reasons! Patrice was someone who would try to find those reasons and share them with the audience. He was really trying to get to the essence of these characters so that they weren’t cartoonish symbols but actual people.

ES: Klytämnestra is usually portrayed as a sort of a sickly drug addict, a kind of decadent, degenerate woman, who is driven by lust and power. Not so in this production. Here she is actually more a mother than anything else, a mother who has lost contact with her daughter and is actually kind of desperate to reconnect. But Elektra is not having any of it. She is driving her mother into a position where she has no way out.

VH: For Patrice the most important point in the opera was the scene between Klytämnestra and Elektra, so we started with that, even though it’s in the middle of the piece. When he was working on something, the first thing he did was look for the center of gravity of the piece and then build around it, like an architect. He prepared a lot in advance but then he used the first days of rehearsal to see how the singers behaved on stage, what they expressed. He was very quick for that kind of thing, and he knew exactly what to say to each singer. He would feel in his own body what the actors and singers were doing on stage, like a physical link.

Nina Stemme as Elektra

RP: In recent years, Patrice stripped himself of everything that hampered him, of all those things he no longer needed. It seemed he no longer wanted to own anything—books, objects. They all seemed burdensome. He simply wanted to approach his work, to get as close as possible to the voices, the eyes, the faces he so loved. In his work, there was an otherworldly, ever-loftier dimension. Once he discovered he was ill, he took on—without complaint—a titanic battle with his illness. He seemed possessed, and he wound up believing that art and theater of every kind could heal humankind. This endless quest, this total art culminated in Elektra.

ES: We opened Elektra in Aix-en-Provence in the summer of 2013 and took it to La Scala the next year, sadly without him. Every time we performed it and rehearsed it in Milan, we had such strong memories of him. He was really there with us. I know for a fact that he wanted this production to go on, to have a life, so to take it to New York is the right thing to do.

VH: Patrice really tried to take the opera out of the tradition. He was proud to tell this story in another way, and I think Elektra was really a kind of artistic final testimony for him.

RP: The last show Patrice and I worked on together was Shakespeare’s As You Like It. One morning, we had a date to meet in a café on Rue Rambuteau. Nothing had been decided about the sets yet. I hesitated for a moment before giving him my thoughts. In this play, one imagines a dense forest, a place where people hide, where you don’t know how to get out. It would be a difficult set to do because our stage didn’t have enough depth to make it a deep dense forest. In nature, though, tree trunks often remind me of entwined bodies that embrace and kiss. And no two trees are alike. I felt that in this particular play, the forest functioned like a single tree, an upright column bearing the weight of the world. As I was explaining all this, Patrice smiled and pulled from his notebook a photo of a solitary oak tree standing along a road—a single tree. We looked at each other, sipped our coffees, and burst into laughter.

Matt Dobkin is the Met’s Creative Director, Content and Strategy.