Catherine Steinegger Der Ring Boulez-Chéreau

Pierre Boulez and the Intermedial Artwork


Keynote adress in the project Bayreuth Revisited, 22 September 2013
SPB  and Wagner Academy, International Vocal Competition ‘s Hertogenbosch (The  Netherlands)

© Catherine Steinegger

Der Ring des Nibelungen in the version of Pierre Boulez and Patrice Chéreau

To celebrate the centenary of the creation of Richard Wagner’s of Der Ring des Nibelungen in Bayreuth in 1876, Wolfgang Wagner, the festival director, asked Pierre Boulez, composer of Marteau sans Maître (Hammer Without a Master) to conduct the orchestra and select a director. Boulez chose Patrice Chéreau to direct this Ring cycle, which, at the outset, created a scandal. Pierre Boulez was accused of ignoring Bayreuth’s interpretative tradition and Chéreau of betraying Wagner’s opus. The question here, therefore, is to find out in what context these accusations were made and whether there was any foundation for them.

Rejecting tradition the Pierre Boulez way
Before he turned to conducting, Pierre Boulez was first and foremost a composer, so his view of the opera was conditioned by his career as a creator of music. He was just 20 years old at the end of World War II, and part of a generation that wanted to forget the past and invent a new language. His dedication to the music of the Second Viennese School and to musical research made him a very atypical conductor. It would be impossible to understand his standpoint without taking into consideration this major part of his career and his commitment to contemporary music. His first encounter with Bayreuth was in 1966 thanks to Wieland Wagner, Wagner’s grandson, the director and creator of the post-World War II “New Bayreuth”. Wieland Wagner asked Boulez to conduct Parsifal, where he followed in the footsteps of the famous conductor Hans Knappertsbusch. Boulez drew away from the interpretative tradition by effacing the religious nature of the opera and placing it in a universal framework, stating that, “Parsifal, like Tristan, immediately flushes out the essential, creates a primordial myth, and transposes the questions and doubts inherent to human nature beyond place and time.” It was therefore hardly surprising that Wieland Wagner should ask Pierre Boulez to conduct the centenary Ring cycle. Wieland Wagner sudden death in 1966 did not affect the appointment because his brother Wolfgang Wagner took over the Festival management and contacted Pierre Boulez. Boulez proposed several names of directors, starting with Ingmar Bergman, followed by Peter Brook and Peter Stein — who all turned it down — before suggesting Patrice Chéreau. All these people were key players in the theatre, a world Pierre Boulez knew well since he had been the musical director of the Renaud-Barrault Company at the Marigny Theatre in Paris from 1946 to 1956, where he created the Domaine Musical series of concerts. He also enjoyed a lifelong friendship with the great actor and director Jean-Louis Barrault. At the time Chéreau was asked to direct at Bayreuth, he already had some solid theatrical experience  under his belt but only two opera productions. However, this mattered little to Boulez, who believed that, on the contrary, new blood was needed to breathe fresh life into Wagnerian productions.

From the purely musical point of view, Boulez faced an unusual orchestral situation because the Bayreuth Festival orchestra is not a permanent one and the musicians are hired only for the summer season. Accordingly homogeneity had to be achieved in a very short space of time. Furthermore, the interpretative tradition of Wagner’s work weighs heavily in Bayreuth. For a conductor such as Pierre Boulez, who starts out with the score and disregards habits formed by tradition, the musicians’ conformism proved to be a major obstacle. Thus the seeds of protest that were to emerge very shortly, lay in Boulez’ starting point.

Back in 1976 a number of the musicians and singers had great difficulty in adapting. Pierre Boulez, who had to deal with their resistance, explained the reasons for the opposition in this way: “Aversion to the staging certainly played a part in the deterioration of the working atmosphere. The anger targeted the director as well as the person responsible for hiring him. The implacable opponents to my work refused to return the following year, so some 30 to 40 per cent of the orchestra had to be renewed”. (1) In addition to what some fervent traditionalist Wagnerians considered an iconoclastic stage production, was an innovative musical interpretation under the conductorship of Pierre Boulez assisted by Jeffrey Tate. Certainly Boulez went against tradition. His new concept shocked a number of critics, some even going as far as to claim that he was condensing the Wagnerian orchestra to a chamber music ensemble, thereby placing more emphasis on the libretto. Unusually for a conductor, Pierre Boulez took the production into account in his work on the music. He proceeded in stages to solve the difficulties raised by adapting the singers to the staging, and explained the way he worked as follows, “I never stop singers for a minor error. One needs to take the time to think about the criticisms one is going to make and not attempt to do too many things at once, with constant interruptions that would be harmful to the director’s work. On the other hand I will have very precise remarks to make at the end, and when I talk to Chéreau about problems with the production, I base that on what I’ve seen because I have thought about it. At a given time I didn’t feel the pace to be right because the singer kept making the same mistake, or something in the staging seemed to pose a problem from the musical perspective. […] I believe that the orchestra/stage context is what makes the tempo important. Only there do you understand the complex but delicate and changing relationship between the production — the way people move and speak ¬— and the musical material provided by the orchestra. The scenes one thinks of as static, where people move around less, also need to have this distance and this confrontation with the material”. (2)

Boulez explained how problems were dealt with by both parties. “In the event of any difference of opinion, Patrice Chéreau always gave way to the music by tightening or expanding his production to adapt his tempo to mine.” (3) For the stage production, Boulez and Chéreau based themselves first and foremost on the text. Boulez defended himself thus, “They criticised me for totally submitting the score to Patrice Chéreau’s production. That was a major crime. But if they had read Wagner’s libretto, they would have understood that despite the importance he obviously attached to the score, Wagner considered his work as a whole”. (4)

Gradually the displays of hostility diminished. The following year, in October 1977, Pierre Boulez observed in Opéra International magazine that the public was reacting less negatively and criticized reactions to the production. “It’s the myth of timelessness. When people want timelessness, what they really want is the costume or robe. Their timelessness ultimately becomes time-related. It consists of taking a vision that was once perpetuated and fixing it forever. In this case, people were referring to a kind of perception of the Middle Ages that was typical of the 19th century. But not only is that Middle Ages not ‘timeless’, it is extremely limited in its temporality.[…] This ‘museum conception’ is typical of our period. Because something was shown like that in the last century it has to stay exactly the same…” (5) Boulez’ remark could just as easily have been made by Patrice Chéreau.

The question can also be put by challenging the very notion of faithfulness, as Pierre Boulez did. “What is faithfulness really? It is respecting the transient? Or is it considering a work to be eternally conveying new truths that can be deciphered according to the period, the place and the circumstances? Is a great work not one that eludes our expectations? I see literal faithfulness as the greatest lie and the greatest betrayal of a work by obstinately constraining it within the framework of its first appearance. Yet everything has changed since then. We have become richer through having acquired new experiences and new stylistic adventures, so are we to go backwards without taking these changes into account? An opus is a constant exchange between the past and the future, which feeds it and feeds us. That is why to hide behind timelessness only serves to stop that vital exchange. It is a ruse, a deceit, to try and stop history and force people to accept a very temporal truth instead of one that goes beyond the very dimension of time. Music does not benefit from that at all, still less theatre, which is subject to the contingencies of representation more than any other form of expression. The true mythical dimension is not that distance, which reassures us and makes us passive spectators of an unreal ‘story’, and therefore one free of danger. Myths are what oblige us to think about our present condition, provoke our reactions, and force us to focus our attention on the real problems they contain. In that respect, a performance that gives the myth the impact of the present, is a satisfactory one.” (6)

With hindsight we can see that there was an exceptional mutual understanding between Chéreau and Boulez, due in part to the latter’s interest in the staging. But even though both of them agreed on the need to emphasise the dramatic action, the critics also hailed the musical direction. Pierre Flinoi, the music critic, wrote, “They say that Boulez’ work was eclipsed by Chéreau’s but, on the contrary, their collaboration was clear and the director’s work would not have been so brilliantly successful without the perfect dynamic support of the modern reading of the libretto demanded by the conductor. It made one feel that Wagner was the first 20th century musician and suddenly we get a foretaste of Mahler and Schoenberg. Priority is given to the tapestry of leitmotifs and the details of their continual development. That perfection in transparency, sensitivity and clarity is a delight to the ear. It goes with dynamic internal research that, by suddenly breaking them, overturns the traditions of the tempi, and creates intense dramatization. The impression of activity and passionate fieriness that emerges from the style of conducting, despite its serenity, comes from deliberate research into destroying the effect to the benefit of light elegance from the orchestra as a whole.” (7)

Because of his work with the orchestra and the singers, Pierre Boulez was less exposed to criticism than Chéreau, but he fully supported the director’s approach. His arguments included criteria for the musical style, which cannot, of course, be described as timeless since it is clearly part of an evolving perspective of the language of music. Pierre Boulez explained that as follows, and I quote:

“Wagner’s work may be considered as the sum total of a certain 19th century. […] In that function of time and timelessness, of characters and myths, the function and style of the music are strangely forgotten. What references does the music make to that mythical past? None, even by allusion. Music does not burden itself with archaeological concerns to any degree. In fact such concerns with costume bitterly disappointed Wagner when the work was created. To achieve a correct transcription of the drama/music reality, a production cannot be burdened with stylistic prohibitions, which are totally absent from the actual text of the work, but are found only in the stage directions that were conceived for a visualisation specifically established in time. Does one always have to play 17th century French tragedies in Louis XIV costumes? Are we forbidden to perform Shakespeare without so-called ‘period’ costumes?” (8)

Chéreau’s adaptation makes a clear allusion to the passing of time by his use of a Foucault pendulum in the second act of The Valkyrie. video fragment Wotan announces the extinction of the gods and when he says the words “das Ende”, he stops the rotation of a very large Foucault-type pendulum and therefore appears to be stopping time, as well as to be demonstrating his power on the passing of time. The Tetralogy could be summarised as eternal renewal. At the end of The Twilight of the Gods, we return to the original situation: time is cyclical. But by placing this Ring into a contemporary historical perspective, Chéreau broke with this cyclical principle and returned to a linear notion of time, an evolution that is constantly being transformed and precludes any possibility of going backwards. This production of the Ring was therefore deeply rooted in history and highly political for it debunked the myth. Some people in the audience saw this as a sacrilege.

Patrice Chéreau: interpretation or betrayal?
The first season of the Chéreau/Boulez Ring in 1976caused such a scandal that one might be justified in asking whether this production was a betrayal or a free interpretation. It provoked violent reactions, with people whistling during the performance. Leaflets were distributed to Wolfgang Wagner calling on him to sack Chéreau as festival director. Chéreau was not the first person to suffer the hostility of a portion of the Bayreuth public, but this opposition was particularly aggressive since it was largely based on ideological and nationalistic arguments. The fact that the staging of the Ring could be perceived as the profanation of a German myth was intolerable to a section of the Wagnerian audience. Another fundamental issue that triggered public rejection was the nationality of the two protagonists. To celebrate that very important event, the centenary of the creation of the Ring, Wolfgang Wagner hired two Frenchmen to interpret a monument of German culture. To add insult to injury, some spectators considered that the dam in The Rhine Gold video fragment destroyed the concept of purity of nature (Ur Natur), as well as the Rhine itself (Vater Rhein), a river celebrated in German Romanticism. Furthermore, Siegfried, the archetypal German hero and the gods, including Wotan, were desacralized. And last but not least, Chéreau had no compunction about evoking Germany’s recent history through Alberich and Mime’s Jewishness; Mime and his suitcase even evoking the Holocaust. There was also a time discrepancy in The Twilight of the Gods, where Gunther and Gudrune’s costumes were clearly 20th century, and hence anachronistic. At the same time as distorting the narrative timeframe, Chéreau “told a story”, since myths enable us to explain and understand the world. He had the extraordinary ambition to encompass all the ideas of Wagner’s era. Those elements would not have raised so much opposition if this particular Ring cycle had not been held in the sacred sanctuary of Bayreuth.

In 1976 Patrice Chéreau was a young theatre director. He already had a prestigious career behind him but had only worked on two operas, Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers at the 12th Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1970, and Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann in 1974 at the Opéra Garnier in Paris. He was therefore not really used to staging opera, which is a very specific area. Nevertheless he had already asserted his own very personal style. He believed that “the only emotions that can be induced by a theatre performance come first and foremost from the actors,” (9) hence his in-depth work on the interplay between the actors that characterize his productions. From that point of view, and considering the history of theatre, he was more in the line of a Stanislavski than a Meyerhold, Appia or Craig, but with references to the French tradition of Jacques Copeau and his notion of the “bare stage”, as well as to Jean Vilar at the Théâtre National Populaire, and Roger Planchon. Nor did Chéreau neglect other influences such as that of Felsenstein or Strehler, and he was very attached to the cinema, working in films at the same time as in the theatre. Chéreau believes that the text is the very foundation of a production. The narrative and the actor are at the core of his scenic conception. Working with the set designer Richard Peduzzi, Patrice Chéreau succeeded in imposing a very specific aesthetic design.  Peduzzi’s sets are undistinguishable from his universe and are part of a monumental and industrial architecture; his utopic visions of an imaginary architecture.

When he was contacted to direct the Ring, Chéreau wrote to Wolfgang Wagner on 29 May 1974, summarizing his ideas for the set. A copy of that letter, addressed to Pierre Boulez, can be found at the Paul Sacher Foundation. Chéreau viewed this project as a continuation of his previous work, La Dispute by Marivaux. This hitherto unpublished letter is a valuable document that enables us to evaluate the changes that occurred between his original ideas and the final production. Chéreau starts out by viewing the Ring cycle as, “an allegory, a cosmogony equal to the Greek tragedies, the myths on which all our culture is based on and at the same time we can stage the incredible psychological depth that Wagner gave to it”. (10) It is therefore part of a vast overall context that exceeds the strictly Germanic dimension of the plot. In this first approach to the production, Chéreau mentioned an historical reading of the Tetralogy. In his letter to Wolfgang Wagner he wrote, “I can say that it would be wonderful to render Wagner’s transition from revolutionary ideas to the discovery of Schopenhauerian thought. It would be impossible to follow the music step by step without following that path as well”. (11)

Another fundamental idea for Chéreau was the importance of, “The acting, not in the excessive style of the 19th century but a concrete form of acting,” (12) which went against Wieland Wagner’s sense of aesthetics, something Chéreau took full responsibility for. But one aspect he did change was the notion of nature in the Ring. He intended to “recreate nature, a kind of ‘Ur-Natur’ or German nature as it may still exist, wild and untouched, as Dürer succeeded in mastering and painting”. (13) As we shall see later, that did not emerge in the final version of his production, but several ideas raised in this letter were later developed and confirmed, including his desire to be figural and use special effects to depict the real and illustrate the fable, using all the artifices of the theatre. Chéreau studied the libretto of the Ring in the same way he would study a play for the theatre. By returning to the imagery of the performance, he went against the symbolism advocated by Wieland Wagner. He illustrated the text so that the spectator could understand the story better. That approach was especially clear by his use of two symbols vital to the plot: the ring and the spear. Chéreau made sure the spectators could see the ring, even from afar. For instance we clearly see Alberich place the ring on his finger. Similarly, there is a highly visible handling of Wotan’s spear, vary varied but also highly symbolic. Wotan and the spear are one. Chéreau used them as a kind of game in the scene between Brünnhilde and Wotan. Wotan uses the spear to wound Alberich but also leans on it to guide the procession of the gods, when they are weakened by the capture of Freia.

Chéreau breathed life into the fable and illustrated it, whereas Wieland Wagner kept the status quo to emphasise the symbolism of the myth. One could say that Chéreau stressed realism while Wieland Wagner neglected the illustrative aspect and kept only the meaning of the myth. Without going into too much detail, after examining all the documents relating to the two productions one could summarize simply by stating that Wagner tended to reinforce the dimension of the myth, whereas Chéreau, influenced by the theatre of Brecht, approached the libretto of the Ring through the historic context of the 19th century and Wagner’s political ideas.

As I have said, some of the ideas Chéreau mentioned in the original project were to change radically, in particular his representation of nature with the notion of “Ur Natur”, which Chéreau believed to be very important but that ultimately took the form of a dam. The aesthetic links with Chéreau’s previous productions, especially Marivaux’ La Dispute, were apparent in the final production. Chéreau had put on the play again at Villeurbanne, with the opening on 23 April 1976, shortly before he left for Bayreuth to rehearse the Ring. Nature played an important role in his staging of Marivaux’s play and was very present in the second act of Siegfried with the bird singing in the forest.

Another element from La Dispute was the awakening of love, the psychological interaction between two beings who find each other or separate appeared in the Sieglinde/Sigmund duo, Siegfried/Brünnhilde and the father/daughter relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde. During Wotan’s long monologue in the second act of Valkyrie, Brünnhilde says to Wotan: “What am I but your creation?” Wotan looks at himself in the mirror and removes the bandage covering his missing eye, whereupon a spotlight illuminates up his face in the mirror and reflects on Brünnhilde, as a theatrical display of the close ties between Wotan and Brünnhilde.

This process is typical of Chéreau’s narrative and allusive style of staging. He broached the Ring from the standpoint of his personal theatrical experience. He not only steered clear of Wieland Wagner’s aesthetic, he also made no reference to recent productions of the Ring, although in an interview with Carlo Schmid published in The Rhine Gold programme, he did the evoke the Valkyrie (1974) and Siegfried (1975) Luca Ronconi directed for La Scala in Milan. “I’d say off the cuff that mythological kinships, that is to say people who are both from no generation and yet from all generations, who are contemporaneous with one another but are not, they become the 19th century family. Ronconi staged that a bit like Buddenbrooks, which is also wrong and the difficulty for me was to think that in any case this isn’t really Eddur or Buddenbrooks but a mixture of the two — and plenty more besides.” (14) This reference to Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks, written in 1901, defined a specific context, namely a 19th century German bourgeois family over four generations. Thomas Mann’s sub-title was, “The decline of a family”, which applies aptly to the Ring.

Looking at footage of Patrice Chéreau’s rehearsals, one is struck by his highly physical participation when showing the singers how he wanted them to act. Since his principle was to use the stage by creating dynamic action to arouse the interest of the audience, he took special care in directing the acting as well as the crowd movements, which are usually the most difficult thing to bring to life and make credible. Chéreau wanted to stress the interplay of the actors, which he achieved with various degrees of success. Some characters stood out by their remarkable stage presence, Heinz Zednik in particular for his roles as Loge and Mime. But the singer most influenced by the theatrical work appears to be Gwyneth Jones, cast as Brünnhilde, who altered her character in amazing ways throughout the plot. She first appeared as a proud and warlike Valkyrie, and then, after Wotan’s sentence, was transformed in to a sensitive woman. Finally, after she falls in love with Siegfried, is betrayed by him and forcefully taken away by Gunther, she appears broken. One particular demonstration of Chéreau’s skill in directing actors was in the scene in The Twilight of the Gods when Brünnhilde, dressed in a long white robe, bends slowly to the ground, her arms apart. Here Chéreau likens Brünnhilde to a wounded bird, an allusion to Charles Baudelaire’s poem, The Albatross. (15)

In this production of the Ring, we discover another universe, theatrical and more intimate, with references to Racine. That can be seen in the way the stage is blocked out, especially in The Valkyrie, where the characters evolve in a Racine-type closed environment. As Alain Satgé has said correctly, “The mountainous heights of Walhalla are a closed area, a stifling vestibule of classical tragedy”. (16) Chéreau was also attached to the notion of realism as discussed by Plato in Book X of The Republic and by Aristotle in his Poetics, which became a vital rule in classical theatrical doctrine. Thus the giants dominate the stage by their height and the gods are taller than the dwarfs, played by children. 

The debate around Chéreau’s Ring revealed some fundamental issues about the interpretative limits in staging opera. To justify his historic transpositions, Chéreau claimed that, “I always said I did not understand Zeitlosigkeit. All mythology is from a specific period”. (17) The historical issue of myth is crucial. It enables us to situate an ideology in a specific context and challenge its continuity. By placing the Ring cycle in the historic period when it was created, Chéreau challenged Wagnerian dogma. He shattered the traditional imagery so dear to the ardent Bayreuth pilgrims by creating a production that was certainly the most disputed in Wagnerian circles.

Chéreau was chided for not being faithful to the Wagnerian vision of the opus; some even claimed that his version was a betrayal. In 1978 Jean-Jacques Nattiez wrote an article entitled “La trahison de Chéreau” (Chéreau’s betrayal), in a review called Musique en Jeu. (18) He later developed this theme in Tétralogie du centenaire. Essai sur l’infidélité (19) (The centenary tetralogy, An essay on infidelity). Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez replied to their detractors in articles that were collated under the title Mythologie et XIXe Siècle (Mythology and the 19th century) and published in The Rhine Gold programme together with an interview by Carlo Schmidt in 1977. It is a complex debate because some aspects of the staging were not in the libretto, as Jean-Jacques Nattiez has shown. Nattiez also asked, “Were Chéreau and Boulez unfaithful to Wagner?” (20) In the paragraph headed “La mise en scène contre le texte” (staging versus text) Nattiez says, “Clearly what is shocking about this production is that the innovations, especially the dam in the third act of Twilight, go completely against the libretto.” (21) Chéreau and Peduzzi had chosen to situate the Tetralogy in the industrial era, so this choice was justifiable, even though it was an addition.

Another significant transposition by Chéreau was to identify Alberich and Mime as Jews, an obvious allusion to Wagner’s anti-Semitism. On that subject Chéreau wrote, “One has to rehabilitate Alberich and Mime, who should not be evil incarnate, but should decide to be evil (in the case of Alberich) because that’s the only way left open to them. So they suddenly enter into conflict with Wotan’s world and the society of men created by Wotan”. (22) This interpretation was justified by analysis and was historically feasible, as confirmed by Heinz Zednik who played Mime and Loge.  When asked whether Wagner really wanted to describe Mime “as a little detestable Jew who meddles with everything”, Zednik replied, “I believe so, because I’m of Jewish origin myself and I know only too well that a certain Germanness (Deutschtum) can find negative aspects in some people who are not German. That can be seen in a thousand things with Germans. That may not be expressly stated in Wagner but it is understood with this melody [he hums the childhood theme Als zullendes Kind], which has something of the Jewish ghetto as Germans imagine it. Wagner didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, anything about the wisdom of Judaism. And Chéreau inverted the relationship by trying to make Mime more sympathetic or nicer, so that one can say, he’s right to prepare that poison and to revolt at last against a universe that is oppressing him […]. As for Mime, he represents Wagner’s anti-Semitic tendency, as does Alberich. He’s the wicked Jew, greedy for power and money, who gives up love because pleasure is sufficient”. (23) Chéreau’s interpretation is not in Wagner’s libretto but can be justified in the light of Wagner’s anti-Semitic writings as well as Germany’s and Bayreuth’s history during the Nazi period. The director’s meaning is thus grafted onto the author’s, revealing fundamental aspects of the work. Of course this approach is quite common in the theatre, where rewriting or adapting plays is common practice. Patrice Chéreau used that process several times — for instance he had no compunction about removing the Monsieur Dimanche scene from his production of Dom Juan. He also had some of the Tales of Hoffmann libretto rewritten for his Opéra Garnier production.

Interpretation is therefore far freer in the theatre than in the opera. In conclusion to his book, Jean-Jacques Nattiez says, “I’m convinced that Boulez and Chéreau sometimes betrayed Wagner. They did it well (Or They were right to do so?)”. (24) Many explanations have been given to justify Chéreau’s perspective for his production. Noting the “arbitrary behaviour of re-creators today”, Jean-Jacques Nattiez observed that, “No one can escape his period, a director no more than a myth. Even though we should avoid broad generalisations, I believe I am not mistaken in seeing Chéreau’s work as a stage continuation of the ‘new criticism’ approach, in other words disdain for an interpretation of the text through linear biography and literal history, but instead neo- or post-Marxist political criticism, which nevertheless stages the work in the period it was created (or what the period suggests that traditional criticism should understand from the text), and above all a relatively free interpretation (Barthes would have said ‘symbolic’ but with a different meaning to Chéreau’s), taken with the nuance that I have just referred to as the point of departure for the analysis: interpretation. In that, Chéreau is truly the offspring of all the intellectual trends of the 1960s…”. (25)

To conclude, what will be remembered about this production of the Ring is an open conception of the staging in relation to history, and a way of positioning Wagner in the context of his period, according to the same principle used by Michel Foucault in Les Mots et les choses (The Order of Things), published 1966, that places history at the centre of modern episteme, which he situates at the beginning of 19th century. “What is essential is that at the beginning of the 19th century a new arrangement of knowledge was constituted, which accommodated simultaneously the historicity of economics (in relation to the forms of production), the finitude of human existence (in relation to scarcity and labour), and the fulfilment of an end to History – whether in the form of an indefinite slowdown or a radical reversal.” (26) It is a questioning about Man and his future, as in the superb end to The Twilight of the Gods in Chéreau’s production, when the crowd gravely turns towards the audience after Valhalla has been set aflame, Video fragment and appears to question the very future of humanity, plunged in disarray. And to return to the original question, did Chéreau interpret or betray Wagner, it seems clear with hindsight — some 30 years having passed since the last performances of this Ring cycle in 1980 — that not only was there no betrayal, but the work was reassessed through a reading that enriched the myth and enabled people who were not necessarily committed to this kind of universe to discover the Ring.

Thus Chéreau and Boulez were the architects of a vital phase in the history of the theatrical interpretation of the Ring in Bayreuth, giving rise to a radical change in the perception of the work. This Ring was also the affirmation of the power of staging and the recognition that this art is on a par with other theatrical disciplines. It is rare for a conductor to be as supportive of a controversial production, so I’ll conclude with these words of Pierre Boulez, which are a magnificent justification for all creation. “It is obvious that literality kills invention and anaesthetises reflection. The important thing — no, the vital thing in the theatre, as in any other means of expression — is a graft, the creation on the basis of a proposal provided by the work. The enrichment provided by grafting one thought onto another, one attitude onto another, is immeasurable.” (27)


(1) Pierre Boulez, Regards sur autrui, op. cit., p. 182.
(2) Ibid., p.336-337.
(3) Ibid., p. 183.
(4) Claude Samuel, Éclats 2002, op. cit., p. 140
(5) Ibid., p.184-185.
(6) Elisabeth Bouillon, Le Ring à Bayreuth. La Tétralogie du centenaire, op. cit., p.196-197.
(7) Elisabeth Bouillon, Le Ring à Bayreuth. La Tétralogie du centenaire, op. cit., p. 148.
(8) Ibid., p.196.
(9) Elisabeth Bouillon, Le Ring à Bayreuth, La Tétralogie du Centenaire, op. cit., p.221. The Siegfried programme, Bayreuth Festival, p.96-99.
(10) Pierre Boulez Collection , Paul Sacher Foundation.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Ibid.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Élisabeth Bouillon, Le Ring à Bayreuth. La Tétralogie du Centenaire, op.cit., p. 193.
(15) Ibid., p. 328.
(16) Elisabeth Bouillon, Le Ring à Bayreuth. La Tétralogie du centenaire, op.cit., p. 200.
(17) Ibid., p.192.
(18) Jean-Jacques Nattiez, “La Trahison de Chéreau”, Musique en Jeu n° 31, p.85-110.
(19) Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Tétralogies, Wagner, Boulez, Chéreau, op. cit.
(20) Ibid., p.11.
(21) Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Tétralogies, Wagner, Boulez, Chéreau, op. cit., p.135.
(22) Programme, p.100.
(23) Elisabeth Bouillon, Le Ring à Bayreuth. La Tétralogie du centenaire, op. cit., p. 250-251.
(24) Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Tétralogies, Wagner, Boulez, Chéreau. Essai sur l’infidélité, op.cit., p.268.
(25) Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Tétralogies, Wagner, Boulez, Chéreau. Essai sur l’infidélité, op.cit., p.87.
(26) Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, English translation, Tavistock Publications, London 1970, p. 262.
(27) Pierre Boulez, Regards sur autrui, op.cit., p. 262.