Cher Public

Stone cold killer

MattilaThere’s a moment early in the film Volver where Almodovar reveals Carmen Maura, his glamorous star of yesteryear, done up as an unkempt old lady, and though it’s easy to google her and see that she’s doing fine in real life, the transformation is wrenchingly poignant. I thought of it last night at the War Memorial despite Karita Mattila’s failure to look a day older than she ever has, because I recall her Jenufas as if they were yesterday, and yet here we are. Batons have been passed. Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding and all that. 

Mattila’s is the greatest triumph in what is a near perfect production of Jenufa at San Francisco Opera. For all the times I heard Mattila sing Jenufa herself—five or six times, I daresay—I had the unshakeable feeling on Tuesday night that I had heard her sing the Kostelnicka before. The role is an uncanny fit. Yes, there are phrases in the lower reaches of the role where her voice is a chalky figment, but she makes it work and, more importantly, lives the role.

I’m not interested in vocal comparisons to Leonie Rysanek, but one thing she shares with that great artist is the ability, through some wizardry, to tower over singers of similar stature, to be terrifying through a simple change in posture. This is a kind of stage instinct she has always had, but it has rarely been so integrated with vocal gesture as it is here. The “Co chvíla” monologue in Act II was utter devastation. Probably, if I had to compare, finer than Silja’s, if only because whatever time has done to Mattila’s voice is not of detriment in this score. This may be her greatest role.

Mattila has an extremely able partner in Malin Bystrom, whose full lyric instrument moves with apparent ease around the part, even in the exposed, high-flying phrases of the second act prayer. There is a throaty quality in the mid-range that recalls Soderstrom, and an unforced stage presence reminiscent of Mattila’s Jenufa, though the characterization is her own. This is a role debut for Bystrom, but I wouldn’t have known it if it weren’t in the press kit. Her singing in the final duet with Laca was especially radiant.

JenufaThe last time I heard William Burden must have been fifteen years ago as Belmonte at Glimmerglass. I surmise on the basis of the youthful ardor that still suffuses his voice that he as at some point made a deal with the devil. The consonantal shitstorm that is Czech seems to trouble him not at all and, though I can’t judge its phonetic perfection, he sings the part as people sing in their native language, though this too is a role debut. I didn’t particularly remember that Belmonte and went in without expectations. I now eagerly await my next opportunity to hear Burden.

In the thankless role of Steva, Scott Quinn impressed with his squillo and his willingness to throw himself into the role of a Moravian village douchebag. Other fine contributions came from Anthony Reed as the mayor, Jill Grove as Grandmother Buryjovka, and, well, pretty much everyone else. Jiri Belohlavek found every ounce of urgency and obsession in the score. The entire second act was, and I use this word sparingly and reverently, harrowing.

Olivier Tambosi’s production (from Hamburg, but as far as I could see identical to the Met’s) has lost none of that feeling it has always had, of existing at the intersection of slightly embroidered realism and pure archetype. If Gockely saved this as the capstone to his career in San Francisco, he chose well.

Photos ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

  • Flora del Rio Grande

    Greg: Good commentary. I agree with you on Bill Burden.
    He is still remarkably effective. No, he did not make a pact
    with the Devil! In fact, it was with Margaret Harshaw. She
    taught him for years at IU — and imparted to him a basic
    method of signing that serves him to this day. She told me
    once that she was very proud of him.
    Flora del Rio Grande

    • la vociaccia

      I’ve always found Burden very inoffensive and forgettable, but I suppose that’s preferable to ‘memorably awful.’

      • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

        Ah, but can they persuade La Streep to play him in a biopic?

  • mountmccabe

    Great review. This was stunning, all around. My favorite performance at SFO this year.

    • Sempre liberal

      Excellent review. I went this weekend to Don Carlo and Jenufa. Mattila was superb, and she dominated Act II like that huge boulder did to the living room of Casa Kostelnica. The cast was superb, and the final duet in Act III, which can feel like it’s from another universe, flowed gorgeously from all of the drama before it. I cannot wait to see it this fall at the MET.

      Also was very impressed with the role debuts of Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo and Anna-Maria Martinez as Elisabetta. I want to hear them sing these parts again. Mariusz Kwiecen was in excellent form, and the Carlo-Rodrigo affection had an especially warm reception on Pride weekend. (They nearly made out twice, Carlo was the instigator.) Rene Pape was his cocky self in Act 2, and his Act 4 aria was heartbreaking. I don’t recall having heard Nadia Krasteva before, but her Eboli was well-sung. Dawn Fatale would have approved heartily.

      First time for me at SF Opera. Loved the War Memorial Opera House. (Warning -- heresy here: I sat in the balcony and loved the video screens with subtitles. It was like watching it up close but with sound better than any movie theater or stereo.) Especially the Biergarten on the balcony. Why doesn’t the MET do something like that on the balcony?

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    Glad you enjoyed Bystrom, I’ve seen her 3 times now (2 Mathildes and a Fiordiligi) and I think it’s a very special sound and her stage person is elegant and sympathetic. Tiny bit nervous about her doing Salome because I don’t think her vocal production is effortless enough for her to sustain a role like that comfortably, but would be very pleased to be proven wrong about this.

    I thought Mattila was hugely impressive when I saw her Kostelnicka a couple of months back, and sang a lot of it very beautifully, and I’m glad she had such a triumph in her first staged performance.

  • PCally

    Great to read about Mattila (who looks a bit like Eva Martons prettier sister in that photo) and also Bystrom. I’ve only ever seen Donna Anna DVDS and wasn’t particularly impressed but it’s a voice I imagine would suit this sort of music a little better. And what hard working artist wouldn’t up their game opposite Mattila?

  • Alex Baker

    This review is not alleviating my intense FOMO about nearly missing this, though I suppose it will only be a few more months…they can’t ship that boulder back here fast enough.

    Also glad to see William Burden following up his wonderful Loge in the WNO Ring with another triumph…

  • leosweill

    Mattila, Almodovar, and Janacek in one place. I died and went to gayboy heaven.

    Maybe next Almodovar can be coaxed into opera to direct La Mattila in a double-header of Erwartung and La Voix Humaine? A boy can dream…

    • Greg.Freed

      Mujeres Al Borde was inspired by Voix Humaine, I have read! I can certainly imagine Mattila heaving a telephone through a French door.

    • Big Finn

      Mattila did a killer Erwartung at the Helsinki festival last summer.

      • PCally

        Here it is

  • Camille

    This picture above, worth a thousand words, just screams at us: “BIG MAMMA IS BACK! And she’s cooking with gas so you’d better watch out!

    Oh, I am JUST over the moon about this report and just chomping on the bit until October rolls around and she scares the Bejezus outta us all!! Go, Karita kara, GO!!! I figure she ought to be able to ride her Kostelnicka pony for a good ten yeats now!!

    This coming October is stacking up to be one of the best opera months of my entire life and can’t WAIT for Fall to fall.

    • Alex Baker

      This pic makes me really want to watch a dark Scandinavian reboot of Murder She Wrote starring KM as a deceptively dowdy amateur detective…

      • armerjacquino

        Hahaha brilliant!

        And, since you mention it- everyone should read this at least once in their life.

        • Camille

          Thank you armerjacqui.

          Actually, I am an murder mystery solvin’ old biddy — honest —- I know about 90 percent of the time whodunnit by ten minutes in (it’s always the MOST innocent character), so maybe I’lll follow the directions and become the next Jessica Fletcher. If I get my own TV show I’ll be sure to contact you to write an episode.

  • Will

    William Burden does indeed possess a good voice supported by a great technique. That may make him “very inoffensive and forgettable” to some but to me it makes him a fine artist whose performances I have enjoyed for decades. In Boston we are fortunate to have a similar tenor of long-stand and continuing vocal beauty and health, William Hite.

    I do hope Karita will continue her interest in Janacek; what an interesting and powerful E.M. she could be!

    • Krunoslav

      Um, to me Burden has been deeply memorable in many roles, including those he was asked to create in BEL CANTO, SILENT NIGHT, oscar and the god-awful GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALENE.


    • Cocky Kurwenal

      She has already demonstrated that she is an interesting and powerful Emilia Marty, at the Met, I think in San Francisco, and soon she’s bringing it to London in concert.

    • Big Finn

      The 2010 San Francisco production with Mattila’s Emilia Marty was such a complete package; wonderfully directed, designed and conducted. The National Opera in Helsinki was the co-producer, so we got the same production in Finland in 2012.

      She really made the role her own, and I wondered why there was such a gap before she finally does it again, in the upcoming London concert version.

      • PCally

        Well the opera has only just begun to be staged on a semi-regular basis very recently. That, combined with Mattila’s tendency to perform almost exclusively in productions stage with her in mind explains why it’s been awhile. In addition there happens to be another singer who IMO surpasses Mattila in this particular role (and this is hard for me to say because Mattila is usually #1 in my book lol): Denoke, who has been singing for much longer as well and who also has spent a large portion of her career specializing in Janacek.

  • Like many others, I have been anticipating Mattila’s Kostelnicka for years and I’m thrilled to read of her triumph. Why am I not in San Francisco right now enjoying this production and Fabiano Don Carlo?

  • JohninSeattle

    I can’t wait to see this! Thanks for the write-up.

  • Operngasse

    SF Opera has given us a little taste of Ms. Matilla’s art in Jenufa:

    • Lescaut

      How wonderful to hear this sung so well

    • verdifan

      Wow--this is beautiful on so many levels.