Cher Public

Females on the beach

Karita Mattila is a gift to this planet. Adulthood, as I am discovering, often involves wrapping oneself in layers of proper professionalism. Emotional nakedness—characteristic of my 15-year-old self when in drama class—becomes effortful or even unbearable. And then walks in a 53-year-old Finnish diva whose vulnerability is a life force.

I have long admired Mattila, a true singer-actor, and I feel very fortunate to have witnessed her conquer the title character in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos this past Saturday in Paris.

Ariadne, who Mattila once described as a “boring women sitting on a rock,” is one of several complex and mature soprano roles she is taking on, alongside Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre and Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck. Yet this is hardly Mattila’s first foray into some of the most challenging roles in opera. I first discovered her gifts in a filmed version of Beethoven’s Fidelio from the Met in 2000, and the intensity and commitment of her performance cemented my excitement for the art form.

Neither is this Mattila’s first strike at Strauss; her daring Salome captivated audiences. Yet in recent years I had begun to fear the Finnish soprano was fading from the scene. Her Tosca was hardly a blockbuster, Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades lacked a certain focus and freshness, and her cancellation  of a new Met production of Un ballo in maschera in 2012 signaled that perhaps the five-year planning cycle in the opera world had not worked in Mattila’s favor. Turning the tide, her appearance in Janácek’s intriguing masterpiece, The Makropulos Case, was a triumph.

Fresh from a public spat with Valery Gergiev that led to death threats, Mattila returned to Paris for a role debut and an unmissable performance. This revival of a production by Laurent Pelly—a comic master known to Met audiences for his La fille de régiment—boasts a superb cast alongside Mattila, notably the French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch as a tempestuous Komponist and German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, who actually sings rather than barks the role of Bacchus.

Pelly’s production is visually stark yet dramatically lucid. During the first act, an unlikely crew of artists from a pretentious composer to a vaudeville-like troupe are forced to work alongside one another to satisfy the demands of their wealthy patron. Chantal Thomas’ set is a sparse foyer rather than a lively backstage area. The drab second act set—the opera-within-an-opera, in which the performers are forced to combine the “serious” opera about Ariadne, daughter of the King of Crete, with a frivolous entertainment—is livened up by the appearance of a vintage Volkswagen van carrying the beachwear-clad entertainers, starring Zerbinetta (Daniela Fally).

Ms. Koch sings the Komponist—furious at the prospect of having his masterpiece compromised by the forces of privilege and decadence—with unusual warmth. After her regal portrayal of Massenet’s rarely-performed Cléôpatre, this performance revealed a singer who can be exciting, not just radiant.

After a few quick appearances in the first act as the quintessential diva, we meet Mattila as a downright demented Ariadne, lying on a loft of sorts in the middle of a desert island. Her mountainous aria, “Es gibt ein Reich,” begins with deliberate tentativeness and eventually ends in full-bodied, visceral elysium. When she imagines being granted salvation by a visiting messenger—“Bald aber naht ein Bote”—Mattila raises herself to be a few inches closer to the heavens and to that which will eventually free her.

Hers is not a technically flawless performance—all those Salomes have taken a toll—but rather one of visceral power and total engagement. And this engagement does not wane for a moment in spite of the valiant attempts of the beach bums (including the excellent baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer) to cheer her up.

The peak of these efforts is Zerbinetta’s extended aria, “Grossmächtige Prinzessin.“ Instead of the showstopper it is meant to be, Fally’s performance lacked energy and, frankly, virtuosity. Clad in an orange wig and matching bikini, she was amusing but not engrossing, no pun intended. Where was Sabine Devieilhe? Getting ready for this, I suppose.

Sulking, grasping Ariadne achieves transcendence after encountering the god Bacchus. Mr. Vogt—a noted singer of Wagner roles—is an inspired choice for this brief yet challenging role, with its notoriously uncomfortable tessitura. Vogt is a rare creature—a singer whose main mode of singing is “Mozartean legato,” but with sufficient heft to project over Strauss’ large orchestration. What is perhaps lacking in color is more than made up in vocal consistency and natural stage presence.

Equally deserving of praise are Ariadne’s three nymphs, though here they seem more like maids or just passersby on the island. Their tight vocal layering made was splendid. As for the pack of players, Cyrille Dubois (as Brighella) was especially impressive for his radiant tenor.

The orchestra under Michael Schønwandt was its characteristic polished self, often enjoying the amusing and humorous bits in Strauss’ surprisingly intimate score.

It was a wise choice for Mattila to take on the role of Ariadne. In a recent interview she openly speculated as to whether her experience with Ariadne would lead her to try Isolde. “Time is passing and I find myself wondering – should I? The small circle of people I trust are already split in their opinions,” though perhaps she will find some clarity following her debut as Sieglinde in Houston this spring. Regardless of her decision, I for one am happy to see this phenomenal Finn taking on new challenges and reminding opera lovers why her rare synergy of vocal and dramatic intensity is simply unmatched on today’s stages.

I brought four friends along with me to Ariadne, and for most of them, this was their first staged opera. The feedback, to be honest, was mixed. “Why was she so angry all the time,” one said. “I was so busy reading the subtitles I did not have time to process everything else,” said another. Despite the accessibility of Strauss’ playful and translucent score, Ariadne is perhaps not the easiest opera for someone less familiar with the art form. Perhaps Ariadne is like, 42nd Street for musicals, “the opera for people who love operas.” It requires a certain suspension of disbelief and its jabs at operatic conventions may be “inside baseball.”

On the subject of opera for newbies, I imagine that at every brainstorming session entitled, “How to Attract Teens to the Opera,” someone might suggest staging a piece inside a video game. This is in fact what Nicolas Buffe did last month at Théâtre Chatelet—fresh from its supremely successful world premiere of An American in Paris—with Mozart’s rarely-performed Il re pastore.

The staged opera is “enhanced” by a gigantic video screen and sets of electronic sounds. The video game effects do not obscure Mozart’s lovely score, but rather they interrupt it at key dramatic points and often remind the audience of what is at stake for each of the characters. In addition to an energetic cast in extraordinarily flamboyant costumes (also by Buffe), the stage is populated by a group of eight astounding male acrobats who are deployed effectively to amplify the storytelling.

Il re pastore focuses on the tensions between love and responsibility as Aminta (Soraya Mafi), a simple-minded shepherd, is recognized by King Alesandro (Rainer Trost) as the rightful heir to Sidon’s throne but cannot fathom leaving his beloved Elisa (Raquel Camarinha), despite Agenore’s (Krystian Adam) attempts to thwart everyone’s happiness. The end result mirrors in many respects two of Mozart’s later operas, Idomeneo and La clemenza di tito, although this opera hardly matches the other two in terms of musical genius.

Yet there are moments of considerable beauty and virtuosity, though they come and go too quickly, as characters finish arias and dash off on pink vespas or descend below the stage via an elevator. Visually the production is often overwhelming, and the stylized movement must have been difficult to master, yet this was the closing performance and the cast seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Speaking of whom, Mr. Trost made a bold impression with his performance of Alessandro, who is insistent upon Aminta succeeding to the throne. The role requires significant stamina and coloratura facility, and Trost was in full control. Ms. Camarinha is a peppy Elisa, most impressive in the second act when she comes up against a barrier of acrobats preventing her from visiting her beloved. Ms. Mafi—in the trouser role of Aminta—has the most difficult sing here, and she delivers a performance of unfaltering energy.

The video game elements are less distracting than one might imagine, and the on-screen introductions of each character at the very least ensure everyone in the audience is on the same page. The concept works with a lesser-known piece, but I would shudder to see it applied to Mozart warhorses like Don Giovanni.

The Chatelet audience stamped and cheered for the entire company, including the creative team. Yet the loudest applause was reserved for the Ensemble Matheus and its grinning conductor, Jean-Christophe Spinosi. No shiny objects or video screens can distract Parisians from rewarding a great period ensemble when they hear one!

Speaking earlier of Ms. Mattila’s intensity and Mr. Vogt’s evenness of tone, there is a singer who combines both of these attributes, and her performances in opera are increasingly rare events. (Her absence from the Met remains unfortunate and glaring). So it was a pleasure to see Anna Caterina Antonacci in my new home turf in Geneva, Switzerland for a major sing (and, I believe, role debut)—Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride in a striking new production by Lukas Hemleb.

Iphigénie, the high priestess of Diana in the temple of Tauris, narrowly avoids being sacrificed by her father. She then has a terrible dream, in which sees her mother, Clytaemnestra, murder her father. Her brother Orestes then kills her mother, prompting Iphigénie to stab her brother. Snapping back to reality, she prays to be reunited with Orestes. Then two shipwrecked Greeks appear on the scene, and a near execution turns into a jovial sibling reunion, at least momentarily.

Gluck’s elegant score does little to soften this admittedly heavy-going (albeit short) opera, and Hemleb’s production—with its reliance on miserable-looking marionettes and rigidly choreographed movement—makes for an effortful night out. Yet Ms. Antonacci is unrivalled in this French repertoire, and she was so engrossing that I felt as though I was being carried through the vocal line. Her stage presence and physicality are colossal and she is as riveting here as she was as Cassandra in Berlioz’ Les Troyens at the Royal Opera House.  (Indeed it would be difficult to imagine Berlioz not deriving some inspiration for his epic opera from Gluck, particularly the latter’s use of powerful choruses—sung beautifully here by the Grand Théâtre Opera Chorus.)

Tenor Steve Davislim sings Pylade—who dedicates every fiber of his being to save his friend Orestes from death—with beauty and evenness of tone. Gluck’s score requires remarkable purity and clarity of sound, and Davislim’s performance is an accomplishment. Bruno Taddia’s Orestes successfully combines anguished singing with dramatic engagement, but the high baritone instrument itself sounded blustery (or perhaps hoarse).

Alexander Polzin’s turntable set is dominated by a large amphitheater populated by chorus members carrying life-size marionette dolls. The second act, meanwhile, offers a black stage punctuated (literally) by some falling paint droplets. I will leave you to ponder the significance of this paintball attack.

Hartmut Haenchen conducts the renowned Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in rich yet taut performance.

I am heartened by the high caliber of musicianship here in Geneva and I look forward to more memorable performances over the coming months, including Porgy and Bess, Jennifer Larmore in Medea, and a Schubert lieder recital from the formidable baritone Michael Volle. I was especially pleased when the friendly usher instructed me to take my cheap-as-can-be ticket and receive a free upgrade at the box office. I ended up in the front and center of the orchestra section—not bad!

  • Feldmarschallin

    Busy reading the subtitles? That is why I hate them. We I started going they didn’t have them and we would do our homework before the opera. Get the score at the VHS, read the libretto and buy the records and listen to them. I guess no one bothers that route anymore. How can anyone follow what is happening on stage and watch the singers if you have to read the text? They should banish those titles.

    • alejandro

      I have zero issues with the Met titles and I usually sit in Family Circle and can maneuver binoculars and reading the titles.

      Granted, an opera I know well like Traviata, I don’t bother with the titles, but I had no issues with newer stuff to me like the recent Bluebeard or Matilla’s run in Makropulos.

      So excited to read good reviews of Sophie Koch. I love her.

      And I want more of Sabine Devieilhe!!!

  • phoenix

    Death threats? Who was threatening to kill who?
    -- Not being very fond of either Mattila or Gergiev, I must have glossed over this bit of gossip. With the exception of her skillful interpretations of Janacek, I rarely listen[ed] to Mattila (except when absolutely isolated into doing so): your ‘Hers is not a technically flawless performance’ take has been in effect (depending on the role) for the last quarter of a century or so. But Gergiev’s Mariinsky mob are certainly no better singers than Mattila and often worse.

    • John L

      Last quarter century? At what early timepoint in her career or roles did you think she was singing well?

      • phoenix

        No timepoint, John. She was variable with technique and voice all through those hundreds of performances in her long career. We all hear with different ears and expectations as to style, delivery & pitch. For me her 1985 Eva (Meistersinger) in Brussels was not even adequate, yet many others raved about it. The Met Evas she sang in the 1990’s were much better but still I never liked her voice, personality & mannerisms. As I wrote above, only in Janacek’s works was I entirely taken in by her -- in those roles her vocal acting was consummate. I didn’t care for her ‘romantic’ stage persona & singing in most of the other rep, but she sang very well quite often, yet in the same role pretty bad on other occasions. It’s a job, a career and she usually honored her commitments. I don’t remember her cancelling frequently -- for those who do enjoy her I am glad she is still out there. To each their own.

        • John L

          True, chacun a son gout. She is one of my favorite singers. In her prime I thought her voice was very rounded with plenty of support and well produced throughout the registers (maybe a little husky in the lower register). Her voice is so distinct and yet so beautiful, not one of those unique but ugly voices. Maybe a little like Christine Brewer, but not as acidic.

  • operaassport

    You make me want to get on a plane and see this now!

  • PCally

    I’m really glad to read such a great review about Mattila. She’s always been one of my favorite artists but the last few times I’ve seen her (Emilia Marty at the met, Jenufa on the web stream from munich) she sounded a bit sub-par and seemed to be compensating by being as flamboyant as possible. Obviously I can’t comment on how she acts Ariadne but there was an audio recording on youtube for a while where she was in great voice.

  • redbear

    When I saw this Ariadne production for the first time, a soprano named Dessay really impressed as Zerbinetta.

    • Big Finn

      Mattila’s debut in this role took place last summer at Covent Garden. Many rave reviews, with a favorable emphasis sometimes on the acting.

      • armerjacquino

        Paris has given Mattila a better supporting cast than London did: I’d much rather have seen Koch than Donose, or Vogt than Sacca.

        But yes, the role is a great fit for her vocally.

        • I heard an online broadcast. If I recall, Matilla started a bit hesitantly on “Ein schones war” but sang a confident “Es gibt ein Reich” was great through the rest.

      • MontyNostry

        I only saw the dress rehearsal of Ariadne at the ROH -- Mattila’s charisma is extraordinary and the voice is very ample, but her pitching was rather hit and miss.

        • operaassport

          Except when she ventured into Puccini, Mattila has never given less than a complete thrilling dramatic performance. She has provided me with some of the most wonderful evenings in a theater in over 40 years of opera going. Even in roles like Leonore and Salome which I would have never thought right for her voice when I first heard her in Mozart roles she found a way to make it work. Not only work, but work brilliantly and memorably.

          I remember after the first night of the then new Fidelio at the MET, I was backstage and she was running around in her bare feet greeting everyone. When we met up she started talking about a bombing that had taken place in Israel that day and how she couldn’t stop thinking about it during the performance and how she felt it was making a statement for freedom. It was quite something. She’s a committed artist.

          She’s a treasure.

          • PCally

            I actually sort of liked her Tosca. Perhaps it’s because I find the character very hard to take but I enjoyed her very aggressive interpretation of the role and I also thought that, minus the very highest notes, she sang the role quite well, albeit without the ideal Italianate ring that would have been ideal. From a purely vocal point of view the best things I’ve ever heard her do are the Paris Elsa and Arabella, both available of youtube. She’s simply astonishing.

  • moi

    Denoke, a loved soprano in Europe, and in Paris she is (was?)considered a star ( of Mortier ) shares practically all her roles with Mattila; Jenufa, Salome, Emilia Marty, Arabella, Elsa, Lisa, Fidelio,
    Katia Kabanova, Marie in Wozzeck, Erwartung, and Sieglinde ( only coming soon for Mattila ) and earlier she did Agathe and Fiordiligi and Donna Anna.
    And right now she is singing the Kostelnicka in Jenufa in Stuttgart.
    Interesting, since they have very little in common vocally, or even actingwise

    • PCally

      They’re both pretty fantastic.

  • moi

    Forgot to point out, that Denoke has wisely stayed away from the italian repertoire….

    • John L

      I didn’t think Mattila was bad in Manon Lescaut or Tosca (she didn’t have the Italianate style nor the vocal flexibility), but I think she is so much better in the non-Italian repertoire. I don’t know if she wanted to do some of the Italian repertoire to be more relevant (probably limiting one’s choices quite a bit by removing the Italian repertoire) or if it was filler to extend her career. But losing the high C is not good for the Italian repertoire, which I think is what happened when she cancelled Ballo at the Met.

      • John L

        I also wish she tackled Sieglinde earlier in her career. I think Sieglinde now may be a little too low for her. But we’ll see this spring in Houston.

        • PCally

          Wasn’t Mattila originally supposed to sing Isolde at Covent Garden years ago? I’d heard that it was because she canceled that Nina Stemme was able to step in.

          • John L

            I do recall Mattila talking about the possibility of Isolde in the late 2000s. Even in her prime I think Isolde may be too much for her.

            • PCally

              I’d thought I’d read a interview that said so but I’m not sure. Agreed, I think it’s a bit heavy for her (as well as a bit too low) but from a dramatic standpoint I always secretly wish she had sung it.

  • That production of Ariadne is not, in my opinion, one of Pelly’s successes.

  • redbear

    If you not interested in tonight’s Ariadne at Bastille, there are recitals by Felicity Lott (“Une amour de Swann” by Marcel Proust and Reynaldo Hahn), Sonya Yoncheva (Clara Schumann and Pauline Viardot), Berlioz “Requiem” by Orchestre National Toulouse, Tugan Sokhiev cond. with Bryan Hymel at the new Philharmonie or the Orchestre national d’Ile de France doing a concert version of “L’occasione fa il ladro.” I might have missed something.

  • Camille

    I found the remark that KM would even mention singing Isolde to be remarkably delusional as I recall the way she sang Chrysothemis, a dozen years ago. That was a hit and miss stress bath for her voice, even if she, along with Polaski, made an enormously affecting sister duo on stage. For once, one could really see and hear the family connection. A fave performance of mine.

    I’m really glad to hear of her singing Ariadne as the top is, well, let’s just say that it is a mezzosoprano tessitura and maybe that’s good for her, even if the low part of the voice was never all that, and Ariadne has to grunt out a G3. The high part of the voice in Makropkulos Case was pretty severely compromised a couple years back, but maybe it’s improved. I dunno about Sieglinde as that requires a lot of meat in the middle but she’ll be hell on wheels in the second act, probably worth the price of admission alone.

    Hope she will return to the MET. People all get their hopes up about her doing Kostelnicka but there is a lot of high note screaming involved, and I say screaming advisedly, as that’s what one usually hears and it kind of ruins the effect.

    Always have remembered her concert recital at Carnegie Hall. It was beautiful in many ways, but the best part was the encore in which she padded onto the stage without her shoes on, shrugged, and launched herself into “Golden Earrings”, yes, those of Marlena Dietrich’s. I always loved her for giving us that moment of divine OTT.

    In bocca al lupo, Cara Karita!

    • PCally

      After she sang Lisa in the Queen of Spades, Leonie Rysanek herself said that Mattila would be a great Isolde one day, and I’ve read reviews that say as much. Regardless, I don’t know if Mattila, for all her talk, has ever really seriously considered taking on the role. I don’t think she’s every really had an upper register that really soured, though it had a big visceral impact. She sounds pretty good on the broadcast Elektra.

      • PCally

        And I am totally one of those people who is looking forward to her Kostelnicka. She probably will do some screaming but that would put her in the company of Varnay, Silja, and Marton. The only singer I’ve ever heard who hasn’t screamed those top notes is Leonie Rysanek.

        • Screaming, wailing or whatever, Silja was a spellbinding Kostelnicka.

          • Or -- I forgot -- hooting.

          • PCally

            Silja was extraordinary in the part, my personal favorite

    • Camille

      Let’s get this straight: last I heard, Leonie Rysanek died in March 1998, therfore she was speaking of virtually a different singer. Mattila’s voice has not aged well, sorry to say to fans, and am afraid that “FIASCO” of a Tosca had a very hard effect on her. (“Fiasco” being the one word review by Alex Ross” which aptly summed it up, as did “pound for pound and ton for ton” remark about the Ring didi, similarly. I also heard her Lisa in Pique Dame just a few seasons ago and it was a letdown and not, surely, the Lisa which Leonie had heard, pre-1998.

      And maybe her Chrysothemis sounded fine on the broadcast, I wouldn’t know about that for I saw them in the house, three or four times: different beast, altogether. Sometimes it will happen that I hear a broadcast of a work I’ve heard in the house much later on—It sounds different, most of the time.

      If you are a fan and anything goes, well good for you. Enjoy. That’s not why I go to the opera. I love a lot of singers and singer/artists, even, but it is a performance by performance situation for me and I go for the music, above all.

      • PCally

        Camille, I wasn’t correcting you, and if you were offended by my post, I’m sorry but I don’t think that was what I was conveying at all. In fact I agree with a lot of what your saying. I was just trying to answer your question about where the idea of a Mattila Isolde came up and why it still occasionally does. Like you, I hardly think that it’s the best role for her and like you I agree that her more recent performances have been letdowns, at least from purely vocal point of view. Don’t assume I’m someone for whom anything goes because I’m not that at all.

        • Camille

          Good, because that is not a good way to be as you will either be let down or you will become rigid. As I am being constantly contradicted around here, as if I have no right to my opinion whatsoever and must fall into goosestep formation, supposing I instantly interpreted your remarks as more of the same.

          Let’s just say, I love her when she is good a d a lot of what she has done i. Recent years has coincided with molause and the after effects of that awful Tosca, which I think must have had a negative effect on her. I just wish she’d get a “Voice-Lift” and go on, somehow, but that isn’t usually what happens, unfortunately.

          I think the Sieglinde will work, if not one hundred percent vocally, at least the histrionics. Isolde, not even Leonie the Greatest tried it, and let’s face it, she had lots more voice. Mattila may have had the PASSION, the SCHWUNG for Isolde but I never heard the voice, despite that old homily that third act Elsa is equal to Isolde. I don’t think so. Not even nearly.

          Anyway, a beautiful lady and a remarkably gifted creature of the stage. Anyone who could make that schmuck/ninny/idiot Elsa come to life and flesh her out the way she did, has my undying gratitude. That, and her stand on Gergiev, but then the Finns vs. Russia has been playing the Superbowl for ages.

          • Camille

            Jesus! Coincided with menopause, not molasses! Damn iphone!

            • PCally

              I’m new-ish to opera going and so have a limited viewpoint when it comes to having seen singers live. Regardless, there are many sopranos that I’d rather hear as Isolde.

            • Camille

              Good for you.
              Sorry to lecture but I am an old yenta.

              Isolde is a ballbreaker. Or an ovary breaker, as it were. It is hard to know what will work and there are many sure ships that sink, much like the Titanic, in a Sea of Isolde.

              Good listening, wherever you may be, and don’t fall for whatever anyone tells you, learn to trust your own ears, and own gut and that’s all.

              Signed—
              An old yenta who has heard too much