Baritone Mariusz Kwiecień is a familiar sight in opera houses around the world but for his debut solo album he's recorded a collection of arias from Polish, Russian and Czech operas that rarely get an airing. Rebecca Franks spoke to him to find out more.
Why did you decide on the theme ‘Slavic Heroes’ for your debut solo album?
Well, I’m Polish. Slavic languages are the closest to my own. That’s why I decided to do an album of Polish, Russian and Czech arias. We’ve already planned a second album, which will be bel canto and verismo works from Rossini until later Verdi. I had a long discussion with my record label Harmonia Mundi and Lukasz Borowicz, who conducted the orchestra, and we decided this would be a logical order.
It’s wonderful to have the Polish repertoire in there alongside the Russian works.
Of course, the Russian repertoire is known as some of the most beautiful in the opera world. Arias from Polish operas are less known or basically unknown so it’s good to show what we have in Poland. Also, I know that in the future I’ll be singing Szymanowski’s King Roger in many places, and it’s great to introduce the public to this music – an aria from the opera is the last number on this CD. I also included arias from Moniuszko’s operas, including Straszny Dwor – The Haunted Manor – an opera about the traditional way of life 200 years ago. For Polish people The Swordbearer’s Aria from The Haunted Manor is very important – it was sung by the best Polish baritones. I recorded this CD not just for worldwide audiences, but for my home country.
Can you tell us about the composer Stanisław Moniuszko?
He’s called the ‘Polish Verdi’. He’s the most popular Polish opera composer: it’s verismo music, very lyrical and with beautiful phrases. Poland has been occupied by Russians, Austrians and Germans, and the political situation influences the librettos, while the music includes many national dances and songs. Moniuszko doesn’t have the kind of talent of Puccini or Verdi, and his orchestration is rather poor, but some of the melodies are really beautiful. He also wrote many Lieder: songs about revolution, freedom, the beauty of the Polish country, and love. These are pretty popular.
You’ve made your name singing Tchaikovksy’s Eugene Onegin, Szymanowski’s King Roger and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. What attracts you to these characters?
Eugene Onegin and Don Giovanni are very similar characters. Both are seducers and lovers. They also don’t respect people. The stories are both written from A to Z, so you have to act well: you have to show that, for example, Don Giovanni is a loser, or a real seducer, or that he’s a man who’s lost everything and the last thing he wants is to look into the eyes of death. But while Don Giovanni is dramma giocoso, Onegin is a real verismo Romantic story about a man who lost his love through his own fault. He didn’t respect love at the start, but it was impossible to get love back when he wanted it.
How about King Roger?
King Roger is completely different. It’s a very short opera, in three acts, but about an hour and a quarter long. You can tell the story in many different ways. Every stage director brings something new, and every production is completely different so it’s interesting to perform. The story’s about King Roger and his wife Roxanna. A shepherd comes and takes Roger’s wife, and basically the whole society, away from him, so Roger tries to find her and bring her back to his kingdom. The shepherd can be seen as a god, or as a prophet spreading news about a new religion and taking people away from the King. There’s also a homosexual undercurrent, influenced by the private story behind the opera. Szymanowski and Iwaszkiewicz, who wrote the libretto, were lovers, but Iwaszkiewicz had a wife. You can see King Roger loves his wife but he’s more attracted to the shepherd in every sense. It can be played in different ways though. As well as being attracted to another man sexually, you can be attracted to god – and we usually say god is male.You can love another man in the same way you love a god. But stage directors often want to make it more engaging, and often play on this homosexual aspect.
Audio clip: Szymanowski: from King Roger, final scene, hymn to Apollo