The Singer as Actor: Stéphane Degout and Roméo et Juliette [The Royal Opera’s Roméo et Juliette, 26 October-17 November 2010]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson meets the French baritone who appears as Mercutio in Covent Garden’s revival of Gounod’s opera…

Stéphane Degout. Photograph: Cédric Roulliat

When Gounod’s opera based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet opens on 26 October (Daniel Oren conducting) it will be only the second revival of the production created for Covent Garden in 1994 by Nicolas Joël. That staging was conducted by the late Sir Charles Mackerras and has transferred to DVD. As for the work’s return to The Royal Opera under revival director Stephen Barlow, this can be seen as part of the French emphasis in this season’s programme. Although The Royal Opera’s Music Director Antonio Pappano’s enthusiasm for Italian opera is renowned, he is also an advocate for the French, and this season, following his concert performances of Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles Massenet will be featured twice, first with Werther (Pappano also conducting) and then in July comes Cendrillon featuring Joyce DiDonato.

This French emphasis encourages speculation on the extent to which Gounod’s opera, dating from 1867, can be thought of as quintessentially French despite its Italian setting and the fact that while drawing on an Italian tale the most famous version of the story comes from one of England’s greatest playwrights. This is a matter to raise with Stéphane Degout since, despite making his Covent Garden debut in 2007 as Dandini in Rossini’s La cenerentola and his most recent appearance at Covent Garden was in Mozart’s Italian-language Così fan tutte, Stéphane Degout is indeed French, a resident of Lyon, his birth-place, not so far away from there, being Bourg-en-Bresse. When I follow my usual approach and ask him first about his background, an unexpected note is struck. “I first went to Lyon so study theatre because what I wanted to do was to become an actor. I was not interested in singing at that time although it is the case that before my voice broke both my sister and I were at a school where we were encouraged to sing. An old man who was blind and who played the harmonium in the church on Sundays would attend the school and get us to sing once a week. But after that I forgot all about singing and when I went to the lycée (stage school) in Lyon at the age of seventeen I only took advantage of the opportunity to study music-theatre and singing there because I thought of those things as being aspects of the job of acting.

“However, one teacher at the lycée who was himself a singer noticed me and I had some private lessons with him. That was in addition to being part of the ensemble that he got together to perform as a choir singing both classical music and jazz. I had fun in that chorus and enjoyed it, but even so when at twenty I went on from there to attend the Conservatoire in Lyon I was still far from certain that singing would be the path that I would take. It was only in 1998 on winning a competition for New Voices that I really started to think of doing it professionally. In that same year I joined the Opera House in Lyon as a member of its Young Artists programme and in the summer attended the Academy on Aix-en-Provence. It was at Aix that we did a workshop on Die Zauberflöte and the year after that we did a production of it at the festival under real professional conditions and with a full set of rehearsals. So, having started out wanting to be an actor, I had by then changed – but not really changed because so much of what is required of an actor is also requisite if you are hoping to be a singer.”

Stéphane Degout as Mercutio & Piotr Beczala as Roméo (Roméo et Juliette, ROH, 2010). Photograph: Bill Cooper

Stéphane’s success as Papageno in Aix-en-Provence was an important moment in his early career and another step was taken in 2002 when, happening to be in Paris at the time, he entered an international competition, Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, and came away with second prize. But, if these events helped to get him noticed, hardly less important for his future development were two contacts that he had already made in Lyon. “During my three years in the conservatoire there, from ’95 to ’98, I worked with two people with whom I am still working to this day. One was Ruben Lifschitz and the other was the pianist Hélène Lucas who now joins me for song recitals. Ruben doesn’t do opera but he worked with us on songs, not least the French and German repertoire, and proved so good that we continue after all this time to keep in touch. Indeed, he has now been our coach for some fifteen years – it helps that all three of us live in Lyon, and it was with Hélène that I made my New York recital debut at Lincoln Center in 2004. Next February following on from an earlier appearance I made with Malcolm Martineau and other singers, I return to the Wigmore Hall. Hélène will be my accompanist and that appearance will be one of five of French song linked to the fact that we have recorded a CD for Naïve which should be out in January. Our chosen composers are Debussy, Ravel, Duparc, Reynaldo Hahn, Chabrier and Saint-Saëns.”

Although the pleasure that Stéphane gets from recitals and from his concert work is rather different from what he experiences when performing in opera, he stresses the benefits that feed from one area into the other. “In opera it is easier to hide behind the orchestra or behind your partners, but in recitals you are more exposed so it’s good for vocal technique. It obliges you to study the text so that you have control of everything and in recitals there are so many texts: each one tells a story that must be presented as clearly as possible. All that helps for opera as well since the words can be just as important there. I would even say, for example, that the role of Pelléas in Pelléas et Mélisande is in essence just one big song, albeit one that lasts for three hours! And even in the case of Roméo et Juliette the song for Mercutio in Act One is all text.”

When Stéphane became a winner in the Operalia, he chose to sing a piece by Poulenc, the first aria from Les mamelles de Tirésias although he recalls that there were some who questioned whether that work is truly an opera. “I certainly regard it as an opera, one with a text, and it may be that I won that prize because I was a Frenchman performing Poulenc in Paris rather than singing something by Donizetti or Mozart!”. Of course Stéphane might well have had equal success with other material, but his remark does prompt the question of whether or not it is true to say that the French have an in-born instinct for the performance of French music. “Of course: it’s obvious. But not having to work at it in the way one does when appearing in, say, La bohème, can have its downside. When something comes naturally you sometimes respond to the first level of meaning without trying to take it further, whereas somebody less familiar with the idiom may be forced to dig more deeply. Nevertheless when singing some of the songs of Apollinaire the poetry is such that I am acutely aware of the need to think about things in depth: they are difficult pieces.”

His instinctive feel for French works has certainly not circumscribed Stéphane’s choice of repertoire which extends from Monteverdi and Gluck to Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. He is very pleased to be tackling Wolfram in Tannhäuser next year and to be doing a new opera in 2012 (“that will be a fresh experience for me”). But, above all, Stéphane’s comments on the roles that he has either taken or plans to take indicate a singer who is sensibly cautious when it comes to finding the right material to suit his voice. “Sometimes I’ve been offered roles which I’ve refused because they were too heavy for me. La bohème was alright to do because the role was that of Schaunard which is short and quite light for Puccini. It was the same last year when I did Silvio in I Pagliacci which was really a chance to try it out in order to see how suitable it was. That was at Orange which is big and I decided to wait awhile before perhaps doing it again. Next year in Salzburg I make a start on Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet but there the theatre is not so large. In these matters you need to follow your instinct. A while back I was offered Ford in Falstaff by the Paris Opera, but I declined because it would be wrong for me to do it in the Bastille although it is a role that I could probably sing in a smaller place.”

Sometimes finding appropriate new material can be helped by having trusted colleagues. “It’s very helpful when you strike up a good relationship with somebody in the way that I have done with the conductor René Jacobs. The respect that you feel for them encourages you to consider very seriously any suggestion that comes from them. Just as I trust Ruben over recitals, I respond to René because he knows my voice and how I work. It was his idea that I should do Francesco Conti’s Don Quichotte, a work from the early-eighteenth-century. Although it was a role written for a tenor, it was for a low tenor and, when René suggested that it was suitable for me as a high baritone to do it, I agreed and it worked well, Similarly it was the conductor Pinchas Steinberg with whom I worked on Die tote Stadt in Paris who said to me that he felt that Wolfram was a role that I should do and that was what encouraged me to try it.”

In contrast to this development and experimentation, the role of Mercutio in Roméo et Juliette is one with which Stéphane is familiar having appeared in it at the Met. “The first run was five years ago followed by revivals in 2006 and 2007 and I did it each time.” Despite Romeo’s friend Mercutio dying long before the story ends, the role in Shakespeare’s play has always been regarded as a striking one and, indeed, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud famously alternated as Romeo and Mercutio in 1935 on the London stage. In Gounod’s opera which Stéphane sees as being inherently respectful of Shakespeare, Mercutio has his own aria in Act One based on the famous Queen Mab speech. However he is absent from Act Two and is then killed off soon after returning in Act Three. The reason for this cutting down of the part (and for the reduction in importance of all of the subsidiary characters other than Frère Laurent) is that the opera whole-heartedly puts the stress on the lovers. They dominate Act Two and the first part of Act Four, while being given the whole of the fifth and final Act to themselves (no remorseful response from their feuding families concludes this telling of the tale). If Tchaikovsky’s celebrated fantasy-overture portrays the lovers ardently, it also memorably depicts the clash of swords. That Gounod should minimise this aspect is, I believe, good cause to suggest that, as in much of French cinema from Carné to Demy, an emphasis on intense romantic tales often leading to a tragic conclusion is a quintessentially French trait. I invite Stéphane to offer his own thoughts on this and on any other features of the opera and his role in it.

“Of course the love aspect is emphasised. Nevertheless there are moments of tension early on when, regardless of the feud between the families, Romeo, a Montague, goes with his friends to the party given by the Capulets. That tension is explored further towards the end of the third Act leading to the fight, but the lovers have very lyrical music which ultimately dominates. The original version of the opera contained dialogue as was expected of a work written for the Opéra-Comique and it’s possible that those words, which were subsequently removed, would have created a somewhat different dramatic emphasis. But in any case it is good that Gounod came up with something quite special for Mercutio’s first Act aria by making the text of it all-important. When he comes back in Act Three there are two or three lines which he is given which are very, very lyrical but that earlier aria is unlike anything else in the opera. As for Mercutio’s character, we see him and not Romeo as the leader of the group, someone who is perhaps a bit older than the others. Certainly he likes to make fun of things and we need to remember that he is not a Montague or a Capulet but the nephew of the prince of the city. So when he fights Tybalt and is killed it is a shock for the group because they had thought of him as being invincible. As for the opera’s intensity of emotion, it certainly has a quality that is far removed from Hollywood kitsch if presented properly but is that because Gounod being a Frenchman composed it in a French way? I’m not sure that I know the answer to that, but it’s definitely something to think about.”

  • Roméo et Juliette – Eight performances at 6.30 p.m. from Tuesday 26 October to Wednesday 17 November 2010
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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