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It’s a good thing “stand and deliver” is no longer the preferred style of opera stage directors. Otherwise the charismatic Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, who opens Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 60th season in the title role of Mozart’s Don Giovanni Saturday night, might have followed his teen-aged passion and become a pop singer.
“You know, I’m still not very crazy about opera,” Kwiecien said with a laugh during a rehearsal break backstage at the Civic Opera House earlier this month. Boyishly handsome, wearing skinny jeans and a white T-shirt that show off his trim, athletic build, Kwiecien certainly has the looks for pop stardom. His eyes are intense, but his manner is gracious and warm, and he is quick with a smile.
“I like opera,” he said. “But what I love in my profession is the theater together with singing, with music. I like singing, of course; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to perform. But I like also what comes behind that–the acting, the ability to be onstage with other people and create some kind of different world that I don’t have in my real life. This is what I love the most.”
Now 42, Kwiecien is one of opera’s most exciting singers, blending a rich, agile baritone with searing emotional depth. Lyric audiences heard him as the Count in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in 2010, in the title role of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in 2008 and as Silvio in I Pagliacci in 2002. Don Giovanni has become a signature role; he has sung more 110 performances of it in nearly 20 different productions around the world.
Given Kwiecien’s passion for the theatrical side of opera, Lyric has surrounded him with something of a dream team. Robert Falls, Tony Award-winning artistic director of Goodman Theatre, is directing this new production. Among the women seduced and abandoned by Kwiecien’s Don is the Donna Elvira of Ana Maria Martinez, who was ravishing as the unhappy water nymph in last season’s production of Dvorak’s Rusalka. Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric’s music director, will be in the pit.
Falls has directed two Lyric productions, including Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah that marked Renee Fleming’s Lyric debut in 1993. At Goodman he has partnered with distinguished actor Brian Dennehy in revelatory productions of Eugene O’Neill plays. Though Kwiecien knows Mozart’s profligate Don inside out, Falls is coming to the opera for the first time. But after nearly 40 years in the theater, he knows good acting when he sees it.
“I have to say, this has been one of the best experiences of my life working with any performer in any medium,” said Falls. “Mariusz is just a remarkable guy. He’s open, he’s generous; he knows what he’s doing. He brings everything every moment. He’s delightfully funny, intensely creative. He’s one of the finest colleagues I’ve ever met. He genuinely is a stage animal. He has that charisma; he just lives and breathes onstage, especially this role.”
Falls is updating the action to the 1920s, a distinct change from Kwiecien’s most recent set of Don Giovanni performances, in February at London’s Royal Opera House. Director Kasper Holten staged the opera as a kind of nightmare experienced by a no-longer-young-man becoming aware of his own mortality.
Kwiecien welcomes new approaches to Mozart’s masterwork.
“Thank God we have different directors,” he exclaimed. “Otherwise, if I were performing 110 times the same show I would die of boredom. I like it, especially when I have a director like Bob—who is really cooperating with singers and asking for advice and giving us fantastic ideas. If something doesn’t work, he is open for changes and creative ideas from us. It’s pure pleasure to work because I’m discovering this role again and again, like it was new.
“Sometimes we have directors who don’t want to cooperate and are still not brilliant,” he said bluntly. “What’s important is to keep the logic. If you have logical interactions between the characters, that’s fine. I can be even on the moon, so long as I’m credible and the story is being told.”
Three years ago during a dress rehearsal for a new production of Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera Kwiecien’s quest for credibility laid him low. He lunged in to kill the Commendatore, and, as he later told the New York Times, felt “end-of-the-world pain.” He aggravated a herniated disc, had surgery and missed three performances. Two weeks after the surgery he was back onstage, charming audiences and critics with a performance the Times called “a triumph of physical rehabilitation and artistic determination.” He later had a second operation on the disc in Poland. Though he lives mainly in New York, he has a home outside Krakow.
“I’m recovered,” Kwiecien said, “but if you fracture your back once…I do a lot of exercises, and I really pay attention to this. I’m really careful with movements onstage, because one movement not fully controlled can cause other problems. I’m still young, and I want to use the full energy I have, the joy of being onstage. But sometimes I have to reduce my craziness and be really careful. I have to think, ‘Okay, now I have to jump. Now I have to dance. Now I have to kill.’ I have to really prepare it. Before I would just do it naturally.”
Kwiecien is naturally careful with his colleagues as Martinez–who has sung Donna Elvira opposite Kwiecien’s Don Giovanni twice before–discovered in 2006. She was pregnant with her son during the production at Houston Grand Opera.
“He was just so joyous about it and always so careful with me onstage,” said Martinez. “He’s got the perfect combination of a lot of energy and playfulness. He’s also centered, always professional, very sharp, very quick-witted. A phenomenal colleague. He’s such a breath of fresh air.”
Though he is still young for some of the big Verdi roles, his repertoire is wide. Next year’s repertoire includes Marcello in La Boheme at the Met, Dr. Malatesta in Don Pasquale in Barcelona and Eugene Onegin in Munich as well as a concert version (in Boston) and a fully staged production (in London) of King Roger, a 1926 work by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. Kwiecien earned strong reviews as the psychologically tortured 12th century Sicilian king in a 2012 production at Santa Fe Opera.
“Acting helps singing,” said Kwiecien. “You cannot just stand and sing. I want to have it all, to see it all and create it all onstage, a real life, a different life.”
Mozart’s Don Giovanni opens at the Lyric Opera of Chicago 7:30 p.m. Saturday and runs through October 29. lyricopera.org.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Riccardo Muti, conductor
Some call it the best kept secret in Chicago.