When the Bolshoi brought its controversial production of Yevgeny Onegin to London in 2010 with a Polish baritone in the title role, it seemed rather perverse, a bit like The Royal Opera touring Peter Grimes starring a French tenor. However, the Polish baritone in question was Mariusz Kwiecien, who has the requisite looks and vocal characteristics for the role and seems ready to claim the mantle of ideal interpreter from the shoulders of Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The smouldering Siberian included arias from Onegin on his debut disc, as does Kwiecien, but where Hvorostovsky paired Tchaikovsky with his trademark Verdi, Kwiecien has stayed closer to home with an inventive programme entitled Slavic Heroes.
In Onegin’s Act I response to Tatyana’s letter, Kwiecien is a good deal more sympathetic than other recent exponents, missing a little of the frosty tone that the role ideally requires here, but his lyrical singing is beautiful, culminating with a lovely diminuendo in the optional high ending. His Act III arioso, when Onegin finally realises – too late – that he is in love with Tatyana, is impassioned and ends with a furiously played Ecossaise which neatly sums up Onegin’s impulsive mood at that moment. One senses that his Onegin will continue to develop and his appearance in Deborah Warner’s production when it transfers from ENO to the Met, will be as eagerly anticipated as Anna Netrebko’s as Tatyana.
Aside from Onegin, Kwiecien has been mostly associated with Mozart and bel canto roles until now, but now is moving into weightier repertoire. Next season will see his Posa at Covent Garden, which should fit him like a glove.
The Russian guests at this Slavic feast are all familiar; from Tchaikovsky’s pen, Robert, the Burgundian duke whose paean to his beloved Mathilde in Iolanta is as passionate as it is brief, to the elderly Cossack Mazeppa who sings of how his young bride Maria has reawakened his heart, like spring. Kwiecien can push too hard on fortes on occasion here. Rachmaninov’s Aleko is another older man, this time reflecting on Zemfira’s unfaithfulness. Kwiecien captures his world-weary despair although his voice is young for the role. He is very fine in the aria from Borodin’s Prince Igor, the brooding ‘No sleep, no rest for my tormented soul’ superbly dispatched. Some of the finest singing on the disc comes in the aria of the Venetian guest from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko; there’s imposing darkness in the introduction, melting into gorgeous liquid tone for the lilting barcarolle in praise of Venice. The only famous Russian baritone aria conspicuous by its absence is Yeletsky’s from Pique Dame… a pity as there is plenty of room left on the disc.
Drawing on his bel canto – as well as his Polish – roots, the three Stanislaw Moniuszko arias are exceptionally fine. Kwiecien has performed in Halka and Verbum Nobile (The Word of a Nobelman), but has yet to sing Miecznik in Straszny Dwór (The Haunted Manor), where his character sets out the virtues any suitors for his daughters must possess over a stamping Polonaise which is quite delightful.
Czech repertoire is effectively raided with attractive arias from Smetana’sThe Devil’s Wall and Dvorák’s The Cunning Peasant, offering more rarity value. The Dvorák, in particular, deserves wider recognition. Returning to Poland, Kwiecien ends with the ecstatic ‘Hymn to Apollo’ from Szymanowski’s wonderful opera King Roger, a role he has already sung to great acclaim and he is reportedly bringing to Covent Garden. It’s a spine-tingling conclusion to the disc.
Lukasz Borowicz conducts the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in impassioned support, although the recording is not as ideally clear as one would wish for at times.
In John Allison’s booklet note, Kwiecien explains how Piero Cappuccilli was his idol. While sharing some of the Italian baritone’s legendary legato and breath control, I find Kwiecien’s warm, nut-brown baritone (not dissimilar to a young Thomas Allen) displays a wider palette of tonal colour, responding well to the different characters he portrays. He sometimes sounds constricted in his upper range, and some of the heavier Russian roles such as Prince Igor and Mazeppa would certainly be too demanding for his instrument as present, but the thoughtful insights he brings to these vignettes promise much for future assumptions. This is an exceptionally fine calling-card for Kwiecien – intelligently selected repertoire and sung with great passion and panache.
Slavic Heroes: Mariusz Kwiecien; Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Lukasz Borowicz (55 minutes) Harmonia Mundi HMW 906101