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!