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One of the still-active artists who has meant the most to me during my opera-going life turns 57 on Tuesday. “Trove Thursday” celebrates the thrilling Finnish soprano Karita Matilla in the ultimate diva role—Emilia Marty in Janácek’s Vec Makropulos led by the fine Czech conductor Jirí Belohlávek who died earlier this year at 71. 

In the midst of all the Renée Fleming “‘will she or won’t she retire” brouhaha this spring I found myself thinking instead about Mattila. I have seen Fleming many times but rarely found her performances all that memorable, with a few exceptions: the Countess in Nozze; Armida with Eve Queler, the final scene from Capriccio with Antonio Pappano in Rome, “Marietta’s Lied” at the Met 125 Gala.

I then recalled my Mattila-times of so many evenings burned into my consciousness. On a hunch I checked and discovered that the first time I saw this pair was just a month apart: in October 1988 Fleming as La Folie in Platée at BAM and then a month later Mattila as Donna Elvira at the Chicago Lyric. If I had been asked then, I’d have voted for Fleming who was dazzling and funny in the Rameau.

On the other hand Mattila’s Elvira in my favorite Jean-Pierre Ponnelle Mozart production nearly got lost amid a spectacular cast—Carol Vaness, Marie McLaughlin, Gösta Winbergh, Samuel Ramey and Claudio Desderi with Semyon Bychkov conducting. What I remember most was Mattila’s Italian: at least I think it was Italian but there were almost no consonants and I need my Elviras to have lots of those.

As I wasn’t so impressed I was disappointed when Mattila was announced for the Met’s new Meistersinger in 1993. But, boy, instead I fell and fell hard. For the next twenty years, Mattila performances were nearly always a high point of every Met season.

With that irrepressibly girlish yet passionate Eva she began a memorable Met collaboration with Ben Heppner, her Stolzing. I saw them three different seasons in Meistersinger and at least three times in the occasionally perverse Robert Wilson Lohengrin in which her compelling theatrical flamboyance refused to be dampened by Wilson’s glacial poses.

For me the most painful “should have been” in 40 years of Met telecasts was the first year of the Elijah Moshinsky Pikovaya Dama dominated by Leonie Rysanek’s electrifying Countess. Mattila and Heppner again made a marvelous pair with her febrile Lisa convincing us that his Ghermann was the most irresistible man in Imperial Russia even over the young and impossibly glamorous Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

For many the prime Met Mattila revelations might be her Fidelio Leonore (again with Heppner) and Salome, both in Jurgen Flimm productions. Had there ever been a more convincingly boyish Fidelio who quivered with such resolute conviction? Although I didn’t much care for Flimm’s vision of the Judean princess, Mattila threw herself into it performing with such enthralling carnality that audiences at the performances I attended were almost too stunned to applaud but then shout and stomp they did!

The Strauss opera that I never imagined would be a good fit was Arabella, but of course Mattila proved me wrong. I was planning a trip to Europe and noticed that Peter Mussbach’s Paris production would be coming to Covent Garden so I made a detour to London to catch it. She and Thomas Hampson were the wittiest, most moving, most romantic pair imaginable and her golden voice soared thrillingly declaring the rightness of her life decisions.

Chrysothemis however pushed her to her limits; it wasn’t a role she sang very often but she was embodied it with an enveloping generosity that almost made me forget how much I dislike the character.

Being opera-crazy inevitably leads to “wish lists”—roles that one hopes a favorite singer will undertake. Unfortunately many of mine for Mattila will not happen. I would have loved to hear her and Heppner in Weber’s Oberon but at least she recorded “Ocean, thy Mighty Monster.” What a marvelous Rusalka she would have made! That scintillating “Watch Duet” from Die Fledermaus with Håkan Hagegård at the Levine Gala made me yearn for a Mattila Rosalinde.

Other than Eva and Elsa she tended to shy away from other Wagner roles—no exultant Elisabeth hailing the great hall and most especially no Senta transfixed by her fantasy Dutchman. Sieglinde came late but wonderfully and she repeats it next summer in San Francisco’s Ring cycles and Kundry finally happened just this month in Finland but will not, alas, seduce at the Met next season. Meanwhile I’ve heard mutterings that there’s an Ortrud in her future.

While a local critic seems fixated on calling out the “cool Nordic colorings” of any female Scandinavian singer including Mattila, her voice sears “white-hot” for me. But it’s true it lacks the morbidezza so coveted in Italian roles which might explain why her Tosca and Manon Lescaut were the least successful endeavors of her Met career. On the other hand, she quite stole the show the night of Roberto Alagna’s Met debut as the least shrewish, most warmly vivacious Musetta ever.

And then there’s Janácek. When I was out of commission and unable to attend the Met part of last season, what I most regret missing was her return as Kostelnicka. Over the years her achingly vulnerable Jenufa was nearly the vocal equal of Gabriela Benackova’s. But she acted it with more nuance and complexity than the Czech soprano whether at the Met opposite Deborah Polaski or Anja Silja or at the Chatelet with Rosalind Plowright. Friends I trust reported that her Kostelnicka was shattering, beautifully sung and acted with powerful restraint

My most recent encounter (but not the last, I pray) was her transfixing final Met Emilia Marty, even better than an earlier one I attended. The fabulous diva hauteur melted for that glorious final monologue of letting go. During the tumultuous ovation she bent down, kissed her hand and patted it to the stage floor. Many of us feared that it might be her Met farewell but happily that wasn’t the case.

But why did it take nearly five years for her to return, especially when we could have been seeing her Ariadne or Wozzeck Marie in the meantime. Apparently she won’t be Sieglinde in the upcoming revival of the Robert Lepage Ring (why?) but may be Mme de Croissy in a revival of the classic John Dexter Les Dialogues des Carmélites. Next though she adds Leokadja Begbick in Mahagonny to her repertoire in November at the Zurich Opera conducted by Fabio Luisi.

 

Janácek: Vec Makropulos
BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
19 August 2016
Broadcast

Karita Mattila — Emilia Marty
Eva Sterbová — Kristina
Ales Briscein — Albert Gregor
Gustáv Belácek — Dr Kolenatý
Jan — Vacík Vítek
Svatopluk Sem — Baron Jaroslav Prus
Ales Vorácek — Janek
Jan Jezek — Hauk-Sendorf
BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jirí Belohlávek conductor

For Mattila-lovers, “Trove Thursday” has also made available her glowing Tove in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder with Johan Botha and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Jenufa with Sena Jurinac and Martha Mödl may still be heard or downloaded as well.

Vec Makropulos can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player above and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

Last week’s Norma and nearly 90 other “Trove Thursday” podcasts also remain available from iTunes or via any RSS reader.