French lyric baritone St_phane Degout, slated for a February 18 recital rich in both m_lodies and Lieder at Alice Tully Hall, is a true man of the theater. Raised near Lyon, he trained as an actor, only later getting drawn by talent and inclination towards a classical singing career. Since winning fame as the genial bird catcher Papageno in Mozart's Magic Flute at the prestigious Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1999, he has worked with many of the world's finest conductors, appearing in most of the major musical capitals. Still just 31, the personable and versatile young singer has won considerable international success in both the operatic and recital fields — a balance of activity he intends to keep.
After his February 2004 New York debut recital in Walter Reade Theater, Degout was praised in Opera News for his "creamily virile tone, excellent enunciation and projection and exemplary legato." For the last two years the baritone has been winning acclaim as the macho Guglielmo in three separate high-profile productions of Mozart's CosÐ fan tutte, originating in Aix, Salzburg, and Brussels. Meanwhile he has given many recitals, notably in Paris's landmark Th_ê¢tre du Chê¢telet last March. Though aiming to add English and Italian songs to his repertory, so far Degout has concentrated on the classic works of the French and German repertoire, relishing the intimate blend of music and words.
"A song recital is like a theatrical reading," he declares. "It allows one to concentrate on the music and text in equal measure. That is rare in opera — it happens only in pieces like [Debussy's] Pell_as et M_lisande and [Berg's] Wozzeck, where the libretti have a real theatrical and textual force. One is alone in recital, face to face with the public, with the text, with the music — with oneself!"
Degout will appear at Lincoln Center next month with his longtime collaborator, pianist H_lne Lucas. "I met H_lne at the Conservatory 11 years ago," he says. "Since then we've always made the time to do recital work together — always under the guidance of [esteemed pianist and coach] Ruben Lifschitz, our true mentor in this area."
Many New York music lovers first glimpsed and heard Degout in November 2005, as a live-wire Mercutio in a much-praised Met debut in the company's new production of Gounod's Rom_o et Juliette. With Natalie Dessay, a fellow member of the current generation of dynamic Gallic stars, Degout provided the rare pleasure of stylishly sung French. The baritone won admiring notices not only for his singing and acting but for his athletic physique. (Asked if he engages in sports to stay in shape, he says with a laugh, "Singing is a sport!")
Degout took to his surroundings with gusto. "The Met experience was really a very good one for me. It's one of the most important theaters in the world; one feels one has to sing there some day. It was good to have the chance this early and in a role that is not dangerous — and in French to boot. The size of the hall seems daunting at first but the acoustics are friendly and the working environment very positive." The company evidently valued his presence as well, as he is slated to return as Papageno in 2007.
The working relationship with the luminous Dessay is also headed for a reunion. "With Natalie I have a professional rapport but also a personal one. We have several mutual friends and we see each other outside of working. She's a person so uncomplicated in her attitude towards her work, and so easy in her friendship, that it's very nice to work at her side. We're preparing Pell_as et M_lisande together."
The main genre on which Degout and Lucas will concentrate for the Alice Tully audience is the ballad. Their French selections will include some relative rarities: a pair of the 1870 M_lodies persanes by Camille Saint-SaêŠns, and a pair of melancholy songs by the nonpareil Venezuelan Jewish composer Reynaldo Hahn, a paramour of Proust whose exquisite works are too little known. Degout and Lucas will also repeat one Ravel cycle from a 2004 Lincoln Center concert that they did together: the delightfully droll Histoires naturelles, to texts by the inimitable children's book writer Jules Renard in which the singer and pianist evoke four birds and an insect. "It's a cycle that H_lne and I particularly love, and I find that it's a good example of the French savoir faire that we do our utmost to display," says Degout. "For me, Ravel and Debussy are more representative of the art of French song than, for example, Gounod, who had the more operatic approach, which was more fashionable in the 19th century. Ravel and Debussy have their own identity, very recognizable: they operate in a unique, particular style, very closely attentive to the texts that they set to music."
Among the German Lieder they have chosen are both familiar and more obscure songs by 19th-century masters Franz Schubert, Carl Loewe, Robert Schumann, and Franz Liszt; they will also perform a comparatively little-known ballad by Kurt Weill to Bertolt Brecht's lyrics, "Vom ertrunkenen M‹dchen."
Degout reports himself an aficionado of folk singing, jazz, musical comedy, and cabaret, not to mention cooking and good wine ("after a performance, never before!"). So, unsurprisingly, he has loved his previous stays in New York, finding it at once impressive and tiring. "I missed the more relaxed French rhythm of life!" he admits. "The Modern Art, Metropolitan, Frick, and Guggenheim Museums were very interesting and rich — as were the brunches in Brooklyn!" Come February 18 at Great Performers, the welcome local return of St_phane Degout's voice and artistry will add to the cultural feast he so much enjoys.
David Shengold writes frequently about the arts.