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Back in shape, injured star returns to Met

The Associated Press, Wednesday, October 26, 2011, 4:21am (PDT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- Sidelined by a back injury just before the opening, Mariusz Kwiecien returned Tuesday night to take his rightful place at the center of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

It may have been too much to hope that the Polish baritone's appearance would jump-start the essentially stillborn staging by Michael Grandage. But with his dashing, dangerous presence and well-focused, insinuating sound, he did provide some welcome jolts of electricity.

Kwiecien (pronounced KVEE-tchen) has sung the title role to acclaim in many opera houses, but never before at the Met. The role suits him perfectly: His Errol Flynn-like good looks, dapper figure and athleticism make him uncommonly believable as the serial seducer. And as fate closes in on the Don in Act 2, the anger and cruelty behind his charming swagger become more apparent.

Barely recuperated from surgery two weeks ago to repair a herniated disc, Kwiecien did make at least one concession in modifying the staging. Instead of climbing down a ladder from a balcony in the opening scene, he first appeared through a door on stage level, pursuing Donna Anna, the woman he intends as his latest conquest.

But any sense of caution was soon dispelled as Kwiecien gave a boldly physical performance, fighting a duel, dashing about the stage, or dropping to one knee as the occasion demanded.

None of this is to take anything away from Peter Mattei, the fine Swedish baritone who filled in for the first three performances. He, too, is an experienced Don, with a voice whose beauty is in a class by itself. But — understandably, given the lack of stage rehearsal — his interpretation seemed a bit bland and generic.

Kwiecien, on the other hand, made a strong impact despite not sounding at his vocal best. Several times his voice cracked as if he had a frog in his throat, and the more lyrical moments like the famous duet "La ci darem la mano" ("There we will entwine our hands") lacked ideal smoothness. But the rapid-fire Champagne Aria crackled with excitement, and he grew in strength as the evening wore on.

The rest of the cast was unchanged, and there was much to admire: the spontaneity of bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Leporello; the sweet musicality and astonishing breath control of tenor Ramon Vargas as Don Ottavio; the stylistic integrity of soprano Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira; and the bright, potent sound of soprano Marina Rebeka as Donna Anna, marred only by a steely top.

Fabio Luisi's conducting seemed breathless at times, and there were more than a few coordination problems between the players and singers.

A lot was riding on Kwiecien's performance: He had only Tuesday night to prepare for the live HD broadcast this coming Saturday afternoon. When he came out for his curtain call, he raised his arms to the audience and grinned wryly, as if to say: "Look, I made it!"

That he did, and then some.

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