La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Stéphane Degout

Yevgeny Onegin and Prince Gremin, two destinies entwined

Martine D. Mergeay
Reading time
6 min.

Debuting the role of the charming and reluctant anti-hero Yevgeny Onegin, Stéphane Degout (Best Singer - International Awards 2022) sets himself new challenges.

This is the first time that you’ll sing Onegin, a unique role in opera literature, as much for the demands of the vocal composition as for the complexity of the character. Is this a new threshold for you or a natural step in your professional journey?

A bit of both… At the age of forty-seven, I enjoy what you might call the voice of maturity – but having said that, I’m clearly taking a risk (smiles), so let’s remain cautious; and it’s true that the role of Onegin is complex, meaty, and sensual. By comparison, the role of Pelléas is a lot more pastel, more ethereal, less sung ‘from the body’. I went from one to another in stages, across a number of key roles, by which I’m referring to Rodrigue, in Verdi’s Don Carlos, or the title role in Hamlet, by Ambroise Thomas. Thanks to these roles I feel echoes in my approach to Yevgeny Onegin that I could never have felt ten years ago.

What was it that appealed to you?

Onegin raises the question of choice and, thus, of freedom. To understand the role properly, we must return to Pushkin’s novel. It’s a particularity of this opera to have chosen episodes in Onegin’s life, without real continuity, relying on the audience to be sufficiently cultured to recall the missing episodes. The novel therefore goes into much more detail about the characters’ past. We should remember that when Onegin arrives at the Larine estate he is completely disillusioned, he has lost his fortune in his escapades, gambling in particular, and takes advantage of an unexpected inheritance to ‘re-establish’ himself in the country. Implicitly, we guess that he’s in upheaval, that he’s fed up with this society to which, however, he belongs, and fed up with pageantry and appearances. And this theme continues throughout the opera.

In the third act, during the grand aria, which is rightly famous, Prince Gremin touches critically and point by point on all that is typical of the high-society life rejected by Onegin. The text strongly targets Russian society at the time and the prince does not mince his words. Yet, in this violent world, reprehensible in so many ways, Tatyana appears ‘like a ray of sun piercing the clouds’, she changes both the course of his life and his relationship with the world. It is here that the destinies become entwined: Gremin’s denunciation is just the same as Onegin, however, his choices are different. He would be Onegin’s better version.

For Onegin, Tatyana represents the love that is recognised yet rejected, the lost love, the sun of Prince Gremin, but what psychological balance is she awarded by Pushkin and Tchaikovsky?

We can analyse their treatment of the role on several levels; social, psychoanalytical, or simply emotional. In any case, Tatyana represents an impossible romance, despite the fact that, in the first act, she and Onegin are both lovers. Yet it’s only in the final act that the psychological energy and personal choices are clearly brought to light, and that, despite the suspense, the circle is closed.

What role does Lenski play in the drama?

Once again, it’s interesting to dig into the context. Lenski is no great friend of Onegin, he’s a country neighbour, of the same age and from the same environment, a circumstantial meeting, a friendship to kill time, to escape the great solitude of idle dandies... It’s interesting to consider that, for Onegin, Lenski’s death (during a duel involving Olga and not Tatyana) serves as a screen memory, as if to prevent him from realising his attachment to her. And it’s when he meets her again, as the wife of the Prince (a title superior to his own), beautiful and fulfilled, that the past suddenly catches up with him.

© Hugo Segers

Although very different in its embodied character and psychological refinement, Onegin’s role has something in common with the more mythical role of Don Giovanni (by Mozart), namely that it has no famous ‘grand arias’. Unlike Lenski or Gremin.

His tunes are less popular, indeed, yet they are truly beautiful arias, and very inventive in terms of melody, mobility, and sensitivity. Thanks to their flowing nature, they sometimes resemble the accompanied recitative, but always with Tchaikovsky’s same signature melody that is so recognisable and which I would be hard-pressed to define.

The staging of this new production is by Laurent Pelly, an artist with whom you have worked on several occasions, notably in Orpheus in the Underworld, Pelléas or Lakmé. What can you tell us about his musical rapport?

As a stage director he is totally in tune with the music! I think he is one of those – exceptional – people whose theatrical work literally highlights the music and, as a singer, I have always observed that the music guides the way he directs the actors. Therefore, I’m delighted to play such an important role with him. And, of course, with Alain Altinoglu!

Stéphane Degout & Laurent Pelly
Stéphane Degout & Laurent Pelly © Hugo Segers

You sing in Russian, which is rather unusual for you. What’s your view on the text in general and in the case of Yevgeny Onegin in particular?

In this domain, there’s a clear difference between lied and opera. The first is about communicating a ‘mood’ linked to the literary richness of the poem, which is almost omnipresent. In opera, the focus lies first on the character, the literary wealth is more of an exception. Except, indeed, in the case of Yevgeny Onegin, for whom, based on the libretto of Konstantin Shilovsky, Tchaikovsky carefully chose original dialogues – in verse, remember - from Pushkin. As a language it’s magnificent, poetic, and suggestive. I’ve worked on this extensively with the coaches at La Monnaie, and, along the away, with different Russian-speaking people in the production, that is also very helpful…

Is it a comfortable language?

Absolutely! One you’ve mastered the matter of pronunciation, it’s a language in which you become ‘naturally immersed’, much more organic than French, whose emission is more peripheral. This is what makes it difficult to sing, even for French speakers, and often means resorting to tricks which hinder a clear understanding. Except, and I always wondered why, among the Belgians, starting with José van Dam, of course!