Cher Public

From the depths

I was greatly anticipating Karita Mattila’s recital on Friday in Toronto’s Koerner Hall. She has been one of my favourite singers of the last 20 years and had previously given me two great, live operatic experiences. The first was the Met Fidelio with Heppner and Pape in 2000. Her exhilarating performance blew the crowd away (I still remember the shivers I felt when she revealed her identity, throwing herself between her husband Don Pizzaro.)  

The second live experience was her first Met Salome which was one of my greatest experiences in an opera house. When the final chords struck, the crowd erupted in a thunderous ovation. Normally, I would have been an enthusiastic contributor to that ovation but on that day, I couldn’t make a sound. My face was in my hands and I was fairly shaking from the extraordinary performance she had just given.

That last experience was in 2004 and since then her voice has naturally aged and lost some of its freshness. Last year, I heard a broadcast of her Covent Garden Ariadne which showed that while her tone is somewhat worn, she can still deliver a moving, compelling performance. A recital seemed like a perfect way to experience a singer in her mid-50s. She could avoid the high notes which no longer come easily and focus on repertoire that shows her voice to best advantage.

She did just that. Her forays above the staff were infrequent and not very far. The few times she went up there, she was better than expected. There was a flat high note here and a lunged-at note there, but there were also others that sounded much more secure than I expected. By the time she sang her final number, R. Strauss’s “Frühlingsfeier,” her high notes were warmed up indeed. In fact, her cries of “Adonis” were hair-raisingly good and moved the audience to a cheering standing ovation.

But what impressed me most was the quality of the rest of the voice. Mattila’s dusky, glamorous soprano sounds remarkably healthy. The voice is even in tone and volume throughout and there is no hint of any gear changes in her singing. And her legato is effortless. The only song that I felt stretched her capabilities is Strauss’s “Wiegenlied,” where the long, smooth lines pushed her to her limit.

Interpretively, Mattila remains a deeply communicative artist. Her German and French is decent (and I’m sure the Finnish was idiomatic) but she’s not much of a text-pointer. Rather, she gets under the emotional skin of each song, from the stark mood of the songs of her countryman, Aulis Sallinen, to the gentle mood of the Brahms “Wiegendlied” to the moving sweep of Duparc’s “Au pays ou se fait la guerre” (a real highlight.)

There is an honesty to her interpretations that is irresistible. To watch her is to see the vulnerability of an artist putting herself in the emotional state of each song. I had my program open to follow along with the words but I rarely glanced at it because I could not take my eyes away from that radiant, expressive face. And with her sure technical command, she was able to express through her singing as well as her physical deportment.

Mattila was sympathetically accompanied by young Canadian pianist Bryan Wagorn, an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. The two had fine chemistry and he was responsive to all of her emotional and musical gestures.

As the recital neared its conclusion, I realized that I was experiencing the kind of exhilaration that doesn’t often come at a live performance but which keeps one going back. I did not want the moment to end and I knew that I’d be leaving the recital hall with a spring in my step, thankful for what life has to offer. That is what a great performance can accomplish.

The trademark Mattila personality was on display as well. She flung her wrap around her and turned away from the audience theatrically at the conclusion Brahms’s “Vergebliches Ständchen.” And when audience members were coughing in between two songs, she comically let out a sympathetic cough herself and encouraged the audience to get it out of their system.

After her riveting, impassioned account of “Frühlingsfeier” which practically shook the walls of the intimate Koerner hall, Mattila responded with two encores. She dedicated her sincere rendition of Strauss’s “Zueignung” to the audience.

For her second and final encore, she sang a song by a post-war Finnish composer whose late-Romantic voice was quite similar to Strauss’s. In introducing the song, she spoke to the audience about the Finns’ affinity for dark emotions. She explained that Finns embrace misery as much as joy and, in this embrace, find a grounding that allows them to take on the challenges of life. And sometimes, as an artist, she is able to tap this basic Finnish embrace of misery in her performances. The song was about overcoming the darkness and looking forward to a new day. She capped it with a solid high note and demonstrated that her audiences can still look forward to many rewarding experiences from this singular artist.


J. Brahms:
Meine Liebe ist grün
Von ewiger Liebe
Vergebliches Ständchen

H. Duparc:
Chanson triste
Au pays où se fait la guerre

J. Sibelius:
Illalle (op 17 no 6)
Våren flyktar hastigt (op 13 no 4)
Var det en dröm? (Op 37 no 4)
Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte (op 37 no 5)

A. Sallinen: Neljä laulua unesta ( Four Dream Songs)

R. Strauss:
Der Stern

Photo: Joseph So

  • I want to thank La Cieca for the opportunity to share this review, an opportunity which I consider an honour. And I’m tickled pink to have one of La Cieca’s trademark headlines applied to my writing.

    I would like to apologise to my fellow parterrians for the lack of detail in this review. I wasn’t planning writing one and didn’t take any notes. But when I started to write a few words to post online, it started to take the shape of a review, for better or worse.

    • rapt

      Apologies?!! A lovely review, of a sort that seems to me especially appropriate to an artist like Mattila (i.e., one of the best): you convey that sense of transformation occurring in the listener--as if heart is speaking to heart (*I* apologize for being able to describe it only in a cliche) beyond all conscious consideration of technique, etc.--that someone like (as if there were anyone like!) Mattila can create. I’m glad that you had this great experience and grateful that you shared it with us.

      • armerjacquino


  • Buster

    Wonderful photo!, and I loved your review too. Same program in Ravinia tomorrow:

  • Camille

    We should thank you, darling Kashania, and as I was just logging on right now to try to track down the thread in which we last discussed KM, I am so delighted to find this resumé instead.

    I’m very pleased for you and am gladdened to hear she can still execute the fabulous song “Frühlingsfeier”, which always fascinated and thrilled me with its over the top nature and was just lately thinking of during the recent Daphne performances. I am so happy for you, my prince!

    Here, from her salad days —

    And so pleased to know she still includes “Au pays où se fait la guerre”. Interestingly, Duparc originally intended this as part of an opera on the subject of Roussalka, which he then abandoned or destroyed. Perhaps thereby explaining a bit more the dramatic nature of the song, which so suited Mme Mattila. She may be getting older, but the heart is still wilde beestie.

    Bless her, and you, too. And Sibelius, whom I love.

    And lastly, kashania, you were exactly on point about her not being a “still” actress, in the thread before which I was looking for first. As soon as you pointed this out, it immediately registered just what the problem had been with the Lohengrin. No matter, she overcame that problem and I hope she will overcome anything in her path at present to once again be on a stage nearby. A toast to Finland, home of Karita and Sibelius, who both give us their fire burning through all that ice.

    • Camille

      Oh, hadn’t notice Bryan Wagorn’s name at first skim-through. It should be noted as he is, indeed, very talented, very sensitive, very smart, and also very young. First took note of him for his excellent playing of the recitativi on the harpsichord/continuo in Le Nozze di Figaro, last season, and I think he will go far.

  • Will

    What a lovely, sensitive and descriptive review of the work of a favorite artist. I shared the Fidelio and Salome experiences with you along with several other Mattila performances,notably Jenufa first opposite Polaski and then countrywoman Silja, and as the ageless E.M. I am delighted to hear that she’s still the great performer and significant voice that gave such pleasure in those performances.

  • zinka

    8/9/1912..So happy Gershwin’s estate gave so much employment to Afro-American singers like Anne Brown, the original Bess.

    I wonder if the usual poison..I mean PERSON will tell me the usual nonsense….

  • Porgy Amor

    Loved it, Ali! I think you are a bigger fan than I, but I wish I had been there.

  • zinka

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!! 8/9/59 I trhought only Callas and Galvany hit this E flat…I love it….she is a throwback to “Cetra Soria” divas..I was weaned on Mancini..Glad she never took it,because I sang along at age 16..and if I tried it..I would never have made my Scala career.(Hitting Loggionisti for booing)

  • mjmacmtenor

    Fond memories of when I first noticed Ms. Mattilla

  • Rowna

    Wonderfu review. An honest appraisal of an artist I admire so much. I am sure everyone here has seen this, but just in case . . .

  • mjmacmtenor

    I particularly enjoyed your reporting on Ms. Mattilla’s comments about the Finnish spirit. When I was in college in the early 70s, our choir (from southern CA) toured Finland -- in January! Quite a shock for the native born Californians. (I was a Navy brat and had even lived in Alaska growing up, so it was not so much of a shock). I do remember the exceptionslly warm hearted Finnish people. We had learned the Finlandia Hymn (in Finnish) and performed it as an unnounced encore on our program. At Finlandia Hall in Helsinki, we had a large audience, many who were old enough to have lived through WWII and fighting against the Nazis and then the Soviets. We started Finlandia with a solo soprano voice; she was gradually joined by the full choir and it built to a large a cappella climax. Many in the audience openly wept over the meaning this had for them. Our final concert was on a Sunday afternoon at the Rock Church (a couple of days later). Afterwards we were loading into our buses (to head off for the USSR); there was a crowd gathered to wish us farewell. Many were older women (and men) in dark heavy coats, hats, and scarves looking like the Anatevka scene from Fiddler. We we so touched by the spirit and generousity of all the people we met. Now, many years later, I live in Lake Worth, FL -- which has the largest Finnish population in the U.S.!

  • Constantine A. Papas

    Congratulations on an outstanding and highly professional review. Mattilla’s Salome left me frozen, with an experience to last a lifetime. She’s in the right genre now- recitals- and I’m glad she did not pursue Puccini further after her attempt in Manon Lescaut and Tosca.

  • floridante2k

    I was lucky enough to be in attendance.
    She was magnificent and was a very generous artiste!

  • zinka

    No, this article is not related to “Fiddler on the Roof.” It is about “opera traditions” that do cause some controversy, especially when I mention “Muti senza acuti.” (acuti are high notes.) Wasn’t it Verdi who “allowed” the PIRA high C’s (not written), as long as they were decent?
    I am not speaking of Corelli holding a ppp three hours in “E Lucevan,” or Gigli’s annoying ad-libbing in the Boheme recording, or the pig of tenors, Bonisolli, hitting FOUR high C’s in Turandot ,”Io voglio ardente d’amor,” and telling those who shush those who applaud that “Puccini wrote a pause.”(so you can applaud). Also we have the hilarious ending of the Vespri Bolero by Militza Korjus,or the stupid Grigolo air raid siren at the end of the Manon..
    I am speaking of the let-down when Licitra is not permitted (Muti) to sing the Pira with no top notes, or some exciting Donizetti ensembles end with no top notes. The term “come scritto” to me is just another way of boring audiences who thrill to “reasonable” high notes. I also have found decorations in many Mozart arias in the last years, where it was considered an outrage previously, but composers often wrote specific extra cadenzas for singers.
    Opera, being “voice..voice…voice” in addition to other marvelous elements, should preserve some of the traditional interpolations, and there are really not many. For example, except for the sopranos who sing the controversial high E flat in Aida, there are no other “adjustments.” (and most of us love the E flat, tasteless as it may be.)
    Do we hear decorations in Otello, Cavalleria, Parsifal, Manon,etc.? Therefore the number of “non come scritto” elements are really rare…so let Montserrat hold the last note of Don Carlo until the curtain falls.(Verdi might have loved it.). Also, I love when Gigli, Del Monaco, and Harry Theyard, rushing onto the ship in Manon Lescaut, take an extra high B?
    Can you mention any areas where singers are tasteless and/or any sections where you WISH for an unwritten note? (How about when we did Carmen in Paterson,NJ and Frasquita went UP at the end of the quintet, or one Varnay Elektra where at the Verdi end, she goes UP on the word “Tanzeeeee.”?
    Finally, why can’t Cavaradossi die, screaming out a high F???? (Ooooops..that might be slightly difficult, unless Larry Brownlee does it.)

  • Thank you all for the kind words. Making one’s debut as a reviewer on parterre is daunting indeed so I appreciate the support.

    Like mjmacmtenor, I first saw/heard Mattila in that Watch Duet at the televised Levine Gala. She sang well but it was her charisma that won me over. I was instantly taken with her.

    When I went to the Met’s new Fidelio, it was mainly to see Heppner’s Florestan (who was very good, especially in the aria)but it was Mattila who “stole” the show (insofar as a title character can “steal” a show from the tenor who doesn’t appear until the second act).

    What was amazing about the I>Salome was that I felt like I had walked into the opera cold, not knowing anything about the story and was experiencing the shock and horror for the first time. In fact, I was quite familiar with the story and had already seen the opera staged once before (with Helen Field). I was sitting in the back row of the Grand Tier but I felt like I was experiencing her up close.

    After the Salome, I remember the Met announcing her Jenufa opposite the Kostelnicka of Silja. I knew this would be a must-see event but I was unable to make it down to NYC. I have still not see her in this part. But fortunately, I have seen a video of her engrossing Katya Kabanova in the wonderful Robert Carsen staging.

    To me, she’s the kind of artist who always demands attention, even when miscast. Her Puccini efforts at the Met were mostly misses but I still found lots to enjoy in both (especially the Tosca). Later, I saw a TV broadcast of the same Bondy production from Munich with Kaufmann and she was better than she had been at the Met.

    I do hope she returns to the Met at some point. I will add that her low notes were easily produced with a dark, smoky colour to them. With her mid-voice in such healthy state, and those low notes, I could see her transitioning to mezzo roles. I’d love the opportunity to see her in an opera again.

    • PCally

      Thanks for the review. I’m glad to here that she still has some magic left in her. Those Salome’s were among the most emotionally devastating performances of anything I’ve ever seen. When she came out for her curtain call one of the nights I went there was the beginning of applause and then a moment’s pause when we saw her. She looked so exhausted and wiped and still seemed to be in character that it felt wrong to start applauding. After that brief moment came one of the loudest ovations I’ve ever heard. Unforgettable. It’s a shame you missed the Jenufas. Her and Silja were devastating and vocally I think 2007-2008 was the last year when Mattila’s voice was at the top of it’s game. her take on that role (and Katya) was really unique and full of depth. The dvd of the latter is one of my favorite performances of hers.
      egarding the Tosca, I always thought the criticisms and controversies seemed grossly over exaggerated. Her top notes were weak and her voice isn’t Italian sounding but whose Tosca is? I only saw the HD so I can’t address how she sounded opening night (people I trust told me she was off form) but other than those loud high notes she sounded fine to me and was maximally committed and always interesting. And seriously, other than Millo, is there anyone who can in all seriousness claim that there was ANY soprano in the Zef production who sang the role better than Mattila. Certainly not Behrens.

    • ducadiposa

      Just coming across this review now -- thank you Ali! I was lucky enough to be at the recital in Toronto as well and concur with all you say. For me, it was the thrill of her presence; her utter identification with all the texts/moods etc. and last but not least, the thrill of her actual tone. I’ve heard her twice live before -- in recital in Toronto probably about 15 years ago (in the far inferior acoustic of Roy Thomson Hall, but she was fantastic -- I remember a particularly characterful rendition of the Dvorak gypsy songs) and maybe 10 years ago as Jenufa in Paris at the Chatelet (gripping and moving!). She is one of those singers who is immediately recognizable by the actual sound of her voice -- and this is not a given I’d say -- there are many very good singers out there who for all their accomplishments, have rather bland, anonymous sounding voices. In Toronto, I loved her sort of over-the-top stylistic choices (!) and the way she towered over the pianist -- but he fought back with extremely dramatic, no-holds-barred playing. A truly memorable recital. Funnily enough, the very next day on the Saturday CBC broadcast her recent Ariadne from Covent Garden. I thought it sounded fantastic over the airwaves at least. Thanks again for this great review!

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    A lot of responses to this review seem to express mild surprise that Mattila can still sing passably, or even, like the good doctor, conclude that all she’s good for henceforth is recitals. I’ve seen her a few times in the last couple of years in recital, as Marie (Wozzeck, not Fille) and Ariadne. The lines are bumpier and the high notes are more effortful, but it’s all still there in abundance, and if anything I’d say her voice has grown and become richer, not that it has ever been wanting in either respect. I’d say she has a huge amount of mileage left. I’m looking forward to her Ariadne again in October and her Kostelnicka the following April- the latter will, I think, herald the start of a really exciting new phase that will end up taking in Tchaikovsky’s Countess, and Klytamnestra. I just hope she finds time for Kundry along the way.

    • She should do Kundry now!! I liked Dalayman at the Met but imagine if Mattila had been part of that dream cast.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        Such a glamorous woman, such a glamorous voice, such a committed actress- she’d be killer.

      • PCally

        I personally would prefer Ortrud. While the role would definitely stretch her, I imagine it would work better than Kundry. I can’t really picture getting through the last ten minutes of the second act, nor could I really picture her being “still” enough for the final act. Would be interesting though. I wish she’d continue with Sieglinde and Marie and Emilia Marty.

    • PCally

      cocky, I cannot comment on the Ariadne or Marie, but there was period a couple of years back where it really sounded like she couldn’t sing very well. Her Lisa was poorly sung and the Jenufa webcast sounded pretty ragged. From what I’ve heard by people who’ve had seen, she’s rebounded and is sounding better than she has in a while. I saw her sing the four last songs last years and was pleasantly surprised, even though I’ve never thought she was at her best in those. She sounded much more secure and confident than the last couple of times she sang at the met.

      • luvtennis

        Perhaps she was adjusting the voice post-menopause during that period of relative vocal unease. Some sopranos never seem to manage that -- sounds like Mattila MAY have jumped that fence.

    • ducadiposa

      Agreed CK -- also a little bugged that people would consider a recital the “easier” route. For anyone who has done any singing (and I hear this from many very accomplished professional singers as well), giving a full recital is actually the *most* difficult challenge a singer can take on. No big orchestra to hide the little flaws; no automatic character/costumes/lighting to fall back on for support. Not saying that singing opera isn’t also hugely challenging, but a singer with just a piano on a bare stage who (if they’re good), tries to find a connection to each different story they are conveying in song; not to mention several different languages etc. etc. -- that is hard! Not everything was perfect in this Toronto program but her tone and interpretations were extremely fine -- as you say, the voice sounds very rich, full and big.