Covent Garden has a reputation for nurturing young talent, and the Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak is an excellent example. Spotted by the ROH's casting director, Peter Katona, when she was a young singer performing at the Placido Domingo competition many years ago, Kurzak was subsequently invited to step into an ailing singer's shoes about six years ago. Later, she was given starring roles in a series of high-profile new productions and revivals, and she's now a beloved singer with the Royal Opera's audience.
This month, she adds a role to her ROH repertoire as she takes on the part of Rosina in a revival of The Barber of Seville opposite young Hungarian baritone Levente Molnar as Figaro. There's youth in the pit also, with Rory Macdonald returning to the house where he used to be a Young Artist to conduct the return of Moshe Leiser and Patrica Caurier's admired production, most recently seen with Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez (a revival which was subsequently released on Virgin DVD). This time, it's about freshness rather than star names, but talent is by no means in short supply.
The role of Rosina is one that Kurzak has performed 'a number of times. It was one of my very first roles – in Poland, in around 2000. That was the first time, and then I had a big break before doing it again because it's normally done by mezzo sopranos. But then I sang it in Munich, and I was really thrilled when Peter Katona gave me this opportunity to do it again at Covent Garden.' Clearly, it's a highlight of the year for the young soprano, whose current repertoire also includes Donna Anna at Salzburg and Lucia in Seattle.
The performance history of Barbiere is interesting, with the role of Rosina alternating between sopranos such as Maria Callas and Kathleen Battle, and mezzo-sopranos like Agnes Baltsa. 'Obviously, some of the role is very low, so I do a lot of ornamentation,' explains Kurzak. 'I found one of the best recordings is by Beverley Sills, and I got some great ideas from her.
'I really love the role, both musically and as a character. And the staging is great. I worked with Patrice and Moshe on their staging of Il turco in Italia last year, which was great fun. This production of Barbiere is a little different: we're being encouraged to act in a more serious way, which allows the comedy to unfold naturally from the situations. It makes it very funny for the audience, and I love that. It's great to do things in a different way.'
In the story, the young Rosina is kept trapped in her room and gets rescued by Count Almaviva, who sees her through her barred window. But since they've never actually met, does Rosina really love the Count? 'Oh yes, I think so,' says the soprano with conviction. 'It's not the first time they've seen each other, and she's just a teenager: she can see someone once and love him. She loves him, even if they're not completely in love. And she's clearly very attracted to him. I certainly believe in love at first sight!'
The continuation of Beaumarchais's story is famous to opera lovers from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, in which the Countess Rosina is shown trapped in a new scenario: marriage to the Count, who is pursuing the maid Susanna. Does Kurzak ever think about the character that Rosina becomes as an older woman when she's playing Rosina in Barbiere? 'I have thought about it a lot, but somehow, no. I think that if you're playing the Countess in Figaro, you have to remember that you're still Rosina. Sometimes, I think people make the Countess too cold and aristocratic. She needs to still have the fire in her character.'
We move on to a more general topic: why is this opera, out of all Rossini's superb and varied works, so popular? 'This is the big question!' she agrees. 'Obviously, the score is absolutely wonderful: it's like a score of highlights. If you were to make a CD of highlights of this opera, you would want to put most of the score into it! Looking at it another way, the opera isn't too long, compared to something like Matilde di Shabran. And it's a great story: it's so much fun, both for the performers and the audience. I think that's why we all love it.'
Though Kurzak's career has encompassed a wide repertoire, including German dramatic music, she now focuses on just two strands: light bel canto roles, and slightly heavier dramatic parts such as Lucia di Lammermoor and Violetta. Does she find one harder than the other? 'It's absolutely different. In the bel canto, you have to focus on just one thing most of the time, namely the coloratura. Then you look at something like Lucia, in which I had such an incredible success, you have this unbelievable mad scene on the end. There's so much in that opera: you have to love and you have to laugh and you have to cry – and to do all of that in the voice is very difficult. But it's a different kind of challenge, and I love to do things like Barbiere just as much.
'I no longer have German music in my repertoire, so these two strands of Italian opera represent the main direction I'm going in now. I think the bel canto suits my voice very well, and it's where I feel most at home.'
Kurzak's current season includes a few performances in her native Poland, which is clearly important to her (she later mentions that her forthcoming La Scala recital debut will include some Polish rarities). 'I don't do all that many performances there, but I love to do it when I can. I performed on New Year's Eve in a gala there, and I had the opportunity last year to try Traviata there. The production was such a success that they have allowed me to go back in March and do a few more. It's always great to perform at home, because I can get together with my family and friends, who don't always get the chance to come and see me perform. I love to do it for them.'
Mozart is an important strand of her repertoire, too: she was seen in Don Giovanni last summer, and will be making her role debut as Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte next season. 'Mozart is something I hope to keep doing, and I love Figaro and the role of Susanna particularly,' she confirms. 'And aside from the fact that I love the music and characters so much, Mozart keeps the voice very fresh, and helps it to feel more comfortable.'
And does she plan to do anything heavier than Lucia? 'At the moment, Lucia is the heaviest role I will take on. I will do more Violettas as well, and perhaps I will eventually take on Marguerite in Faust, but that's as heavy as I plan to go at this time.'
Having mentioned taking inspiration from Beverley Sills's Rosina, I ask Kurzak whether she has any operatic heroes. But, she says, 'on one level, no. I've listened to a lot of Mirella Freni, and of course there are many people I admire, but I tend not to have a hero in my repertoire. I tend to listen more to people singing heavier repertoire – things like Un ballo in maschera – and I love specific interpretations such as Maria Callas in Tosca or Mirello Freni as Butterfly. I don't have one single idol or listen to the same singer in every single role. In my own repertoire, I try to look at the score and libretto more on my own and find my own interpretations. I want to discover my own colours in my voice. And because I grew up in a musical family, and spent a lot of time in the opera house as a child, I grew up knowing a lot of repertoire.'
Kurzak spent many of her younger days in the opera house when her parents were working there. Did she find it intense to grow up in a household with a professional instrumentalist for a father and an opera singer for a mother? 'I loved it!' she says with enthusiasm. 'I wanted to be there. I started playing the violin when I was seven and music was always important. I would do my homework as quickly as possible and beg my father to take me to the opera house!
'My family have always been enormously supportive and helpful to me, both emotionally and musically. And my mother was my teacher: although I trained in the conservatoire, she was the one who gave me all my technique.' And where did her mother get it from? 'Nature', Kurzak replies humbly. 'She had a naturally beautiful voice. After giving birth, she lost it completely. So she had to start again from the very beginning, and she got it back, note by note. What that meant is that she found out exactly how to produce the sound, and therefore she became a wonderful teacher. She found out how to explain everything.'
With this kind of help, her career soon took off. 'Of course, I grew up behind the Iron Curtain, so initially there weren't many opportunities to travel. But eventually I took part in some competitions, and won some of them. Then I entered the Placido Domingo Operalia competition, and although I didn't win, it gave me some important exposure.' This included being heard by Peter Katona, the casting director at Covent Garden, who started to watch her career with interest. Kurzak describes Katona as her mentor, and credits him with kick-starting her international career with a series of important roles, first of all taking over in a revival of Mozart's Mitridate, then appearing in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore and Don Pasquale.
An appearance in Rossini's Matilde di Shabran was especially important, because she practically stole the show from the intended star, Juan Diego Florez. 'I feel completely at home; I love to be here,' she says of the Royal Opera House, also recounting to me how she almost missed the opening performance of the Matilde run because of illness. 'I had to miss the general rehearsal, and I was thinking to myself, “Why, after five weeks of work, do I have to be ill now?”' Thankfully, it made her a star, the critics raved, and the audience truly loved her. 'The public is wonderful here. It's a great place to be,' she says.
Kurzak will be back later in the year in a revival of David McVicar's production of Le nozze di Figaro, something she's looking forward to enormously. She's also recently signed an exclusive recording contract with Decca, for whom she recorded her first disc late last year in Valencia. It includes a range of her roles, including everything from Susanna to Rosina to Lucia. 'This was a dream come true for me,' she says.
But she confesses that the recording studio has its own special challenges: 'To have to record something like Rosina's aria seven or eight times in a row to get it absolutely perfect is by no means easy. In the theatre you have lots of things going on and you can connect with the energy of the audience. But on record at home, you can hear absolutely everything. It was a huge challenge, but it was also hugely satisfying.' The CD is something she's evidently hugely proud of, and it promises to be an important document of this exciting young artist. In the meantime, London audiences are lucky enough to be able to see her in person in this revival of Il barbiere di Siviglia.
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