Stephane Degout: French baritone's a star "over there" and on recordings

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday October 25, 2022
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Baritone Stephane Degout
Baritone Stephane Degout

One place sea-level rise can be measured is the Atlantic Ocean, where in the world of opera there is a growing gulf between the shores. Rare, and rarer, is the major European opera singer who crosses the Atlantic except for circumscribed sojourns at the Met. The American opera world is, increasingly, an outpost catering more to the development of its own prodigies and their non-European counterparts. When it comes to casting, there are effectively two worlds an ocean apart.

Like many of his continental colleagues, French baritone Stephane Degout, a central player in repertoires ranging from early music to new-music premieres, gets most of his work in opera houses an airport or train ride away from his home in Lyon, where he also sings.

These singers are hardly averse to performing in America. They just find it a greater schlepp for what are usually longer rehearsal periods and performance runs, sometimes for less money than in government-subsidized European companies. The ones with established careers can sing more, make more, and be home more.

Before he reached the career peak he now occupies, Degout was given to posting the delicious local cuisine he cooked at home. I hope it wasn't that I called it food porn —which I meant as high praise— that he's all but stopped his culinary display.

His specialties now are major Baroque roles and liturgical music, French opera and song, and role creation, such as the central role of Edward II in George Benjamin's "Lessons in Love and Violence." In any repertoire, he marries a rich, resonant, supremely focused baritone with just enough perfume to identify it as French but never enough to asphyxiate. Then there's his piercing intelligence, worn lightly but often deployed with a touch of danger.

Being easy on the eyes and with a killer smile hasn't upset his fortunes, either, the more so because he uses both as means of expression. Being studly has also never been a drawback, and his manifest sense of humor suggests he will not mind at all if we work backwards here.

Interrupted dreams
His latest recording, "Mein Traum," with Raphael Pichon's ensemble Pygmalion (Harmonia Mundi) —currently being toured throughout France— is a concept album with a brain and a mission that won't settle for a title like "Passion" or "Souvenirs." Its subject is interruptions and other breaks in the "natural" order, suggesting attempts at the skirting of death itself. Its compelling program is spelled out in an absorbing liner essay.

The music of Schubert, and its preoccupation with the Wanderer, is motivic. Choral interjections are nothing short of magical.

In recent years, a gallery of musicians has sought to give us Schubert as it might have sounded to Schubert, and with Pichon's laser focus on historical precedent —combined with vivid playing and singing— "Mein Traum" marks another major step forward.

The Schubert numbers include rarely heard selections from the oratorio "Lazarus" and the opera "Alfonso und Estrella" and some of the larger songs in their orchestral versions or transcriptions. Other orchestrated Schubert songs (one by Liszt) are patently dramatic, approaching the operatic at time, and fertile ground for Degout's artistry at its most trenchant.

The idea of the "interrupted" is pursued at depth in Pichon's searching account of Schubert's so-called "Unfinished" Symphony, passages of it at a pianissimo that verges on inaudibility. The two movements are themselves interrupted by an atmospheric except from Weber's "Oberon." All the musicians are at their most expressive and involving in the selections from Schumann's "Scenes from Faust," in which Degout proposes some haunting pianissimi of his own.

All but one of the songs count as rarities in present-day concert life, and here they leap out of the speakers. The exception is a rendition of the "Ave Maria," arguably Schubert's best-known work given its being drafted into weddings and other liturgical settings. Here's it's presented with its original title, "Ellen's Third Song," and performed, accompanied by solo harp, by Sabine Devieilhe with an otherworldly purity that makes it sound newly minted.

That's the thing about Degout recordings; they're rarely of the baritone alone —the definition of the collegial musician. He participates in an equally rare duet on Devieilhe's rightly praised Bach-Handel CD (Erato).

He and Devielhe both contribute to the new recording of Bach's "Saint-Matthew Passion" (Harmonia Mundi) that just won the Gramophone Choral Award. Degout sings the role of Jesus arrestingly, keenly focused on the drama, and is solo bass in one of the greatest Bach arias, "Mache dich, mein Herze rein."

The recording as a whole is consummately game-changing, but Degout's fervid, heart-rending "Mache dich" —rich-toned, light on the vibrato when there's any at all, riding the rocking rhythm— sits comfortably at the summit of all recorded performances.

In Degout's recording of Ravel orchestral songs with Francois-Xavier's Les Siecles (Harmoni Mundi), attention favored the revelatory performances of the two piano concertos, with Cedric Tiberghien playing a Pleyel piano. But the songs are no less vivid, and Degout is an ideal exponent of the character Ravel evokes in "Don Quichotte a Dulcinee."

If you bridle at the very thought of a chamber version of Mahler's great vocal symphony, "Das Lied von der Erde," Degout's (in the even-numbered songs) with tenor Kevin Amiel may take you as far out of your comfort zone as any. Schoenberg's orchestration, itself unfinished and completed by Rainer Riehn, gives near equal weight to 13 instruments, including piano (to say nothing of a few textual changes), and the result is often jarring —to the point of seeming to trivialize the work at times.

That said, it's colorful in a truly Mahlerian sense, and it wins you over to the extent you let it. Degout sings with greater interiority than Amiel —until the concluding "Der Abschied," among the most cherished movements in all of Mahler. There he's more stentorial than transcendent, but, interestingly for a gay singer, particularly keen on the lines about the sad separation of friends. If it does nothing else, it communicates Degout's penchant for being adventurous, experimental, and unflaggingly interesting.

- 'Mein Traum,' 'Pygmalion' under Raphael Pichon, Harmonia Mundi CD $19.98
- 'Ravel Orchestral Songs (with the two piano concertos),' 'Les Siecles' under Francois-Xavier Roth, Harmonia Mundi CD $19.98
- Bach, 'Matthäus-Passion,' 'Pygmalion' under Raphael Pichon, Harmonic Mundi CD $29.98
- Mahler, 'Das Lied von der Erde' (Schoenberg chamber version), 'Le Balcon' under Maxime Pascal, b-records CD, $18.99

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