Saturday 30 September 2023

What is essential is that you have to be passionate about the work: Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis, Don Carlo in the Royal Opera's revival of La Forza del Destino on his clutch of Verdi roles

Verdi: La Forza del Destino - Étienne Dupuis - Royal Opera 2023 (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)
Verdi: La Forza del Destino - Étienne Dupuis - Royal Opera 2023 (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis is currently appearing as Don Carlo in the Royal Opera's production of Verdi's La Forza del Destino, directed by Christof Loy, with Sondra Radvanosky and Brian Jagde conducted by Sir Mark Elder (in repertory until 9 October) and I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Étienne after the first night. This season, Verdi is something of a theme, Étienne is also singing Germont in La Traviata in Vienna and makes his role-debut in the title role of Verdi's Rigoletto at the Teatro Real in Madrid. Last year, he had huge success as Rodrigue in the Metropolitan Opera's first production of Verdi's Don Carlos in the original French. Étienne appeared in the Ravel double bill of L’Heure Espagnole and L’Enfant et les Sortilèges at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2015. We caught him in 2019, in the title role of Mozart's Don Giovanni in Ivo van Hove's new production for the Paris Opera at the Palais Garnier with Nicole Car as Donna Elvira [see my review].

Born in Montreal, Étienne completed his vocal studies at McGill University and as a member of l’Atelier Lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal. His European appearances included several roles at the Deutsche Oper Berlin where in 2015 he sang the title role in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin with soprano Nicole Car as Tatyana, and they subsequently married.

Étienne Dupuis (Photo: Dario Acosta)
Étienne Dupuis (Photo: Dario Acosta)

Étienne's Covent Garden performances as Don Carlo in La Forza del Destino were his role-debut and he stood in at comparatively short notice. It was a role he had studied, having been supposed to sing it during the pandemic but it meant that he had to memorise Acts Two and Three in around a month. However you look at it, a huge effort, and for Étienne, memory is to a certain extent kinetic, and he thinks it is easier to remember if you have more to learn than just the music.

The opera remains a somewhat diffuse work for audiences, as with Il Trovatore they tend to go for the music and the underlying drama takes time to absorb. However, there was a freshness of approach from the cast at this revival, it was Sondra Radvanovsky's role debut as Leonora, whilst other soloists like Brian Jagde (singing Don Alvaro) had only sung their roles comparatively few times before, and the whole went well with the audience. Whilst audience attention spans seem to have got shorter, on the first night of La Forza del Destino, Étienne felt that the energy was high from beginning to end.

I suggest that Étienne's role of Don Carlo can be seen as one in a range of Verdi's villainous baritones, and he comments that this is true for much of Italian bel canto. But it is important that you don't hate the character you are singing, that you find something more positive underlying. He points out that with many of these roles, the epoch of the drama is important. In La Traviata, the mid-19th century gentleman, Giorgio Germont thinks that he is doing the right thing by his daughter, whilst for Don Carlo in La Forza del Destino, honour is all. Étienne admits that Don Carlo has few redeeming qualities, but his life has been stolen from him (as a result of his father's sudden death). Avenging his father gives him his only reason to live, and whilst this is not a completely redeeming quality it highlights his sense of honour.

For Rigoletto, which Étienne sings for the first time in Madrid in December, the character definitely has redeeming qualities. He lives a dangerous life at the Duke's court and uses his tongue as his weapon. But away from court, he is defenceless and very aware of it. This is why the Maledizione, the curse, is so important, Rigoletto keeps going back to it and feels that incurring the curse was his own fault. In Madrid, the production is directed by Miguel del Arco and conducted by Nicola Luisotti. Once the Madrid performances are over, Étienne hopes to have further outings with the role.

Mozart: Don Giovanni - Etienne Dupuis, - Paris Opera (Photo Charles Duprat / OnP)
Mozart: Don Giovanni - Étienne Dupuis, - Paris Opera 2019 (Photo Charles Duprat / OnP)

Whilst we often tend to refer to Verdi's baritone roles, you cannot sing them as if all the roles are the same and Verdi toys with the tessiture so that some are on the high side, some rather low, though Don Carlo sits in the middle. Each role is different, and every audience member thinks of the operas differently; it is both a disadvantage and a gift that audiences know these so well. Étienne does a role his way, sings it as true to who he is, and accepts that this means if the performances are liked, things continue, but if not, they stop. As an example, he mentions Escamillo in Bizet's Carmen, which he feels he has never done in a satisfactory way (and the way he talks of the role suggests that the chances of hearing him in it again are pretty low).

Étienne loves the idea that a wider range of singers have the opportunities to sing these roles, but there are limitations, not just availability and willingness, there is suitability too, voices need to develop to be able to sing the roles. For major Verdi roles, you need a mature singer with plenty of vocal development, which means looking the part is less likely. But for centuries, this was one of the conventions of the theatre, that you accepted that singers incarnated gods, kings and such on stage. Étienne worries that the modern emphasis on purely visual elements in casting is somewhat reductionist. After all, would you want to hear Gounod's Roméo et Juliette sung by a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old?

And he mentions Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, where Minnie's servants are described as Native Americans (and Puccini's depiction of them is viewed nowadays as profoundly colonialist) except that the way Minnie talks to them is as if they are European servants, this was Puccini's way of dealing with the subject. Here, as in many of opera's more challenging moments, Étienne feels that we need to use a lot more creative imagination, and we need to have conversations about these ideas, not monologues.

Verdi: Don Carlos - Jamie Barton (Eboli), Étienne Dupuis (Rodrigue) - The Metropolitan Opera (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Verdi: Don Carlos - Jamie Barton (Eboli), Étienne Dupuis (Rodrigue) - The Metropolitan Opera (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Somehow, this brings us to talking about expressing yourself on stage and assessing the importance of gesture and looks. Étienne refers me to a festival in Quebec where three groups were shown the same performances, one group had sound only, one group had visuals only and one group had sound and visuals. This last group, inevitably, did well in deciding which artist actually won the festival, but the surprising thing was that the group with visuals only did somewhat better than the group with sound only in reaching the correct conclusion.

We are a very visual people. For La Forza del Destino, Étienne spends more time in make-up than warming up. His character ages during the evening, and he feels that this adds something to the character, and can be fun for the audience. But he admits that at other times, the visual emphasis can be too much and that reviewers concentrate on what they saw rather than what they heard.

To be a success, every live production needs a combination of luck, talent, work and will. This last, Étienne sees as being very important, all the great houses have it, the entire company 'busting their butts'. He also admits that it is a weird job and that opera companies have an element of live Museum to them, trying to make old things sound new, making them fresh.

When it comes to production styles, Étienne is happy to take whatever concept is applied to work, provided you do not destroy the core emotions of the piece, so you can make what you sing is true. He can be inspired by a range of things, from the work itself to different pieces of information to politics, adding that there is an element of politics to Rigoletto's plot. With Handel's operas 'you can go nuts', you are seeing just one version of characters who often reoccur in other operas. Many aspects of opera can work if, as in Handel, the canvas is broad enough, if the setting is not specific. Étienne mentions Robert Wilson's production of Debussy's Pelléas et Melisande [Étienne sang his first Pelléas in the 2017 revival of the production at the Opéra Bastille] which he felt worked very well as Wilson set it in an abstract world whilst the original is in a made-up place. And in Wagner, of course, the composer gives you a lot of time to make the ideas come true. What is essential is that you have to be passionate about the work.

Étienne Dupuis in his dressing room for The Metropolitan Opera's production of Verdi's Don Carlos (Photo: Étienne Dupuis)
Étienne Dupuis in his dressing room for The Metropolitan Opera's
production of Verdi's Don Carlos (Photo: Étienne Dupuis)

Another director whose name crops up in our conversation is Krzysztof Warlikowski whose work Étienne adores. Warlikowski's 2006 production Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride at the Paris Opera was booed at first but came to be appreciated after it was revived [Étienne sang in the 2016 revival, see the review on Bachtrack], and again, the element of re-casting for revivals played a role. He has a similar admiration for Laurent Pelly's work, and Étienne took part in Pelly's production of Ravel's two operas at Glyndebourne in 2015.

What is true is that with different directors, some people thrive and others do not. With Robert Wilson's production of Pelléas et Melisande, Étienne had difficulty because the stylised movement gave him physical pain (something I have heard from other singers in Wilson's productions), whereas his Melisande, Elena Tsallagova, simply seemed to thrive, she fitted in.

Born in Montreal, Étienne is a native French speaker so I was intrigued as to how he felt about Verdi's Don Carlos, an opera written originally in French but best known in its Italian form. Having recently performed the role of Rodgrigue/Posa at the Met in French, Étienne has now performed the role in both languages. His first comment is that when he sings the role, it makes his soul better. One of the things that Étienne emphasises is that Verdi both wrote and revised the opera in French. The Modena version (the favoured five-act version in Italian) is simply the revised French version in an Italian translation created for Italy.

As far as Étienne is concerned, everything falls into place when Don Carlos is sung in French, though the original 1867 French version is pompous and too long, and the revised 1884 version is better (still in French). In French, you naturally get the nuances and you don't have to do anything, whereas in Italian you have to work harder to make the nuances happen. Étienne initially sang the opera in Italian and had the weird feeling of having to make the nuances happen, but as soon as he sang it in French things fell into place.

The original language is a lot more fluid and easier to sing. So, the French version works with lighter voices, because in Italian you have to work harder to make it fit. During the 19th century, Verdi was very big in France and many of his Italian operas were translated into French, but the only ones that really work are those that Verdi worked on directly.

After his debut in Rigoletto in December, Étienne has a very busy time. He is singing in a new opera with Opéra de Montréal, La Reine-garçon by composer Julien Bilodeau & librettist Michel Marc Bouchard, based on Bouchard's play about Queen Christina of Sweden. Then he does Paolo in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra at the Paris Opera, directed by Calixto Bieito, conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock with Ludovic Tézier in the title role and Étienne's wife Nicole Car as Amelia, and there is also Sancho Panza in Massenet's Don Quichotte also in Paris, directed by Damiano Michieletto, conducted by Mikhail Tatarnikov, with Ildar Abdrazakov and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo sharing the title role. These three operas are pretty much at the same time and all need learning! But it means that he will be spending over three months at home in Paris and he adds that there is just something about singing at the house where you live.

He finds living and working with his opera singer wife works well, they both sing and work in similar ways, both are intuitive and love the acting, often completing each other's ideas, though there has to be give and take. This means that when he is at home, he can focus on his family. Their son is six and a half, and when Étienne discusses logistics, the importance of family, and being able to take his son to school is apparent. When we meet, Étienne is in London (though about to go home on the Eurostar) whilst Nicole Car is in Milan so their son was with his grandparents.

Étienne Dupuis (Photo: Emilie Brouchon)
Étienne Dupuis (Photo: Emilie Brouchon)

If you turn to Étienne's discography, it is rather more off-centre and intriguing. There is Love Blows as the Wind Blows, a disc of 20th-century music with string quartet, and a series of recordings of more unusual 19th-century repertoire. In fact, he loves digging things out. The quartet album, Love Blows as the Wind Blows (on ATMA Classique) came about because the quartet wanted to do Barber's Dover Beach with him (they are from the same place in Canada), and the question was what else to perform. George Butterworth's Love Blows as the Wind Blows remains somewhat unusual and Étienne likens it in style to RVW, then there is Farewell, Earth's Bliss by Geoffrey Bush which are some of Étienne's favourite pieces and a work by Rejean Coallier who is a friend of the string quartet, and he took a work for baritone and piano and worked it for baritone and string quartet. It all came together almost by accident, and then the record company heard them performing the programme and they were able to record it too.

Apart from the recording of Meyerbeer's Dinorah with the Deutsche Oper Berlin on cpo and Honegger & Ibert's L'Aiglon on Decca, the rest of his discs he owes to Palazzetto Bru Zane, who explore works that have fallen by the wayside and become forgotten, some justified and some not as Étienne wryly adds. Halevy's La Reine de Chypre, which he recorded in 2018 [see my review], he was rather taken with, calling it beautiful and amazing.

Like Verdi, Massenet wrote a considerable number of operas but we only hear four or five. Étienne recorded Massenet's Thérèse and a disc of Massenet's songs, but there are still more of the composer's works to explore. Another of Étienne's Bru Zane disc is Messager's 1926 operetta Passionément. In fact, there are plenty of works by unknown composers out there, and unknown works by better-known composers. And Étienne feels that it is a good time to focus on something different, you might not get the same audience sizes, but it keeps things fresh. The latest score he has been sent, Chabrier's Gwendoline which is set in the eighth century and features a Danish Pirate who falls in love with a Saxon woman who resists him. It is one giant dialogue between the two as each opens their eyes to different attitudes, and he feels that there is a lot a contemporary director could do.

For Étienne Dupuis' forthcoming performances, see his website and see the music page on his site for his discography.

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