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The OPERA NEWS Awards: Piotr Beczala

HENRY STEWART pays tribute to the the thrilling Polish tenor, who has the kind of voice you want to hang medals on.

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Photographed by Marty Umans at the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York
Grooming by Affan Malik / Jacket: Adolfo Domínguez / shirt: Phineas Cole / watch: Franck Muller
© Marty Umans 2015
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Piotr Beczala has the kind of voice you want to hang medals on. Its luminosity makes many of his fellow lyric tenors, past and present, sound by comparison like flickering candlewicks. Beczala’s clarity and cleanliness of tone are the essence of his appeal. Consider his earnest turn as Lenski in Eugene Onegin for the Met in 2013. Beczala at his entrance is all charm, grinning widely, almost compulsively, like a teenager stoned for the first time. It’s endearing, but he pulls off the role because he has the voice to match — fresh, irresistible and never strained, equally at ease sweeping its lower range as brushing its uppermost. 

Still, it’s not just the technical skill that keeps you coming back to Beczala. “Technique exists to express the character, not yourself,” he told opera newstwo years ago. When Beczala’s Lenski says, in the famous Act I arioso, that he loves Olga, it’s not that you believe him — it’s how could you not want to? The tenor employed a similar charm the same year as the duplicitous Duke in Rigoletto, but in that role, he let us see through it, too, grinning less with his mouth than with his eyes, which glimmered with a spark of the devil, hinting at a snakier soul. He doesn’t so much adjust his voice as he changes his face, its center of gravity, acting not with Lenski’s cheeks, which are helplessly sincere, but with the Duke’s deceitful peepers. (Both performances were among the six appearances Beczala has made in the Met’s Live in HD series, beginning with his Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor in 2009.)

So there’s the drama and the musical accuracy, neither ever sacrificed for the other, because for Beczala technique and feeling are integral parts of the same whole — the voice. It’s crisp like the skin of a ripe apple, but he can warp it effortlessly for dramatic effect: listen for the way he pulls it in just a little to highlight the hurt informing Lenski’s jealousy in Act II, or the way he pushes it out for “La donna è mobile,” pointing a finger upward after he hits his high note, like Babe Ruth calling his shot after hitting his home run. It’s cocky, sure, but also lovable (not to mention character-appropriate); and he’s earned it. It’s with that level of skill that he frequently, literally, stops the show: his “Parmi veder le lagrime,” his “Kuda, kuda” demand pauses in the action for the explosion of audience applause. The kind of admiration he provokes requires an immediate outlet.  

Beczala was born in Poland, in the small city Czechowice-Dziedzice, and like that country, his repertoire straddles the divide between Western Europe and the Slavic regions to the east. Poland boasts a rich national culture, but it has historically been pulled between its neighbors, Germany and Russia. Of course, in this age of globalization, Beczala’s range of roles is broad, reaching from Franz Lehár to Anton Rubinstein, but it’s rooted in old-fashioned contrasts — West and East. 

He began his professional career in German-speaking countries, turning to the nearest opera center to escape from his home country’s hidebound conservatory traditions. In 1992, he started singing with the Landestheater Linz in Austria, just three years after the Berlin Wall had come down; five years later, he joined Zurich Opera. By 2004, he had made debuts at Covent Garden, as the Italian Singer in Rosenkavalier, and in the U.S., at San Francisco Opera, in Eugene Onegin. In 2006, he sang Rigoletto at La Scala and then at the Met. As soon as he arrived, audiences at the New York house recognized him as a star, and he has since reappeared regularly at both — as well as the Vienna State Opera, the Paris Opera and elsewhere. 

Beczala wields his star-power brilliantly in traditional repertoire, then expends the musical capital he accrues to turn audiences on to less familiar gems. He did this with his 2010 CD Slavic Opera Ariasincluding half a program of Polish arias with the works of such well-known Russian and Czech composers as Dvořák, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff, letting loose on pieces by his lesser-known compatriots Feliks Nowowiejski, Władysław Żeleński and especially Stanisław Moniuszko, considered the godfather of Polish opera. Beczala sounds invested, selling the unfamiliar music of his homeland to new audiences; in “Cisza dokola,” from Moniuszko’s Straszny Dwór (The Haunted Manor, 1865), he vacillates between a hushed, frightened tone and barrel-lunged brawn as a chiming clock (represented in music-box-like polonaises) reminds the character of his dead mother. In eight minutes, Beczala makes a case not only for rescuing this epic aria, or even the whole opera, but for paying more attention to Polish music in general. Videos of these pieces on YouTube are awash with supportive comments in his native tongue that can be summed up in a single word, familiar across national boundaries: “Brawo.” Add to them a “Bravo” of our own. spacer 

HENRY STEWART

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