While Q2 Music celebrates contemporary Polish new music this week, it’s no less than cosmic timing that Mariusz Kwiecien released his debut solo disc, Slavic Heroes, on January 10 for Harmonia Mundi.
Kwiecien, who turns 40 this fall, has garnered a reputation for Italianate roles at the Met, particularly in Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale) and Mozart (Le Nozze di Figaro, Così fan Tutte, Don Giovanni). Elsewhere, however, his hauntingly conflicted Onegin is the sort of performance to be used, alongside Hvorostovsky and Mattei, as a future measuring stick for young baritones. There’s pedigree in Hvorostovsky, heart in Mattei, but the disaffection in Kwiecien leaves him magnificently malevolent, creating an even harder crash in the final rejection scene. Like roasted veal bone marrow, you want to spread it on toast.
Yet the true draw of Slavic Heroes, a disc that forgoes the traditional baritone subjects of revenge, avarice and malfeasance to show the real emotive powers of the darker male range, is the hidden splendor of the Polish rep. “This is a very American thing, to have heroes and be proud of your country,” Kwiecien told Opera News last September when asked about the Polish figures he would like to play in opera. “But when I was born, my country was really a prison for all of the Polish people…at the time under Communism, everything was the same, everything was gray.”
Poland may have had no Captain America-like idols for young Kwiecien, but by the time he began to develop a taste for music in high school at the Academy of Music in Kraków, the pool of heroes had widened considerably. And while many will come to Slavic Heroes for the Tchaikovsky, they’ll stay for the Moniuszko and Szymanowski.
Szymanowski’s Król Roger is a bit of an anomaly on the disc. It’s at once the most recognizable Polish work, which sets it apart from the rarities by Stanislaw Moniuszko. Written in 1924, it’s also the only work not to come from the early 19th Century. It is, however, a tantalizing gateway drug (Kwiecien has sung the role previously in Europe and brings it to Santa Fe this summer). The final hymn to Apollo speaks to ration over passion, west versus east, secular versus sacred—a push-pull endemic to the 20th Century. Such conflict was also apparent in Szymanowski’s own life as he careened from an exotic aesthetic espoused by members of the musical movement Young Poland to a period of post-October Revolution depression and crises of faith in a world that had become homogenized and gray. It’s perhaps not by chance that the Szymanowski selection ends the disc, hinting at a disruption to the preceding idyll of tasty torture and romanticized rage.
Comparatively, Moniuszko’s triad represented here by Kwiecien is winsome, glittering, but is not a sonic civilization without discontents. An aria from Halka (“Helen”) sung by a lover who seduces and abandons a village girl and goes on to marry an heiress of means is the sort of tune Don Giovanni would croon if he had any sense of moral reprehension. The line “I am afraid of her tears” is one of those moments of pure, drop-dead opera. And Moniuszko’s use of repeated lines hint at the emotional turmoil and mental imbalance of a character otherwise easily written off as a gold-digging rake, complemented by a score that starts off similarly to Onegin’s hallmark Act I aria before moving into breathless convulsions. A father’s aria in Straszny Dwór (“The Haunted Manor”) is regal, refined and totally against any character acceptable in Communist-era Poland—but it’s hard not to feel a sense of nationalistic pride when he calls for a worthy son-in-law to be willing to shed blood for his country.
Similar pastoral idylls are at play in the final selection from Moniuszko (Verbum Nobile or “The Word of a Nobleman”), which ups the champagne factor musically and gives Schubert a run for his pastoral money. In such an arrangement—punctuated by arias from Dvorak, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky—we travel from the darkest of Moniuszko’s corners to the lightest, before plunging back into the ice bath with Szymanowski by way of Borodin’s Prince Igor. You get the sense of a requiem for Poland, a country that, for a time, was in the words of Verdi “so lovely and lost.” Trim the trappings of Russia and the Czech Republic, and here you’re left with a blessedly incomplete full circle—and a beguiling new rep that demands further exploration.