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Abendstern

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.

  • CKurwenal

    I was at this performance -- Mattila was overwhelming. I started going to opera in the second half of the 1990s so although I missed all her Mozart, I have been lucky enough to catch quite a few of Mattila’s performances across her prime, seeing her in Elektra, Don Carlos, Lohengrin, Ariadne, Jenufa, Ballo, Fidelio, Queen of Spades and Arabella, as well as lots of recitals and concerts. Much as I really have come to adore Renee Fleming (and do, usually, find her interpretations quite profound and very memorable), I completely agree that it’s Mattila who has been the most remarkable and exciting of the divas who have been active since I started going to see opera. Based on her recent form, I expect she will have many more years as a hugely compelling and beloved diva before the public.

    • CCorwinNYC

      Mattila’s Mozart career wasn’t exactly over by the mid-90s. She did at least two high profile productions a bit later--the controversial Hans Neuenfels Cosi in Salzburg 2000 and Donna Anna in Peter Stein’s Don Giovanni in Chicago in 2004.

      • PCally

        She also sang Donna Anna (with Frittoli as Elvira) at Salzburg in 1999. I have a recording of that performance and I saw the fiordiligi and while both performances were LEAGUES ahead of her Mozart recordings earlier in her career it was apparent that Mozart exposed some of the kinks in her vocal production, i.e. a tendency to go slightly flat in softer moments and blaring high notes in more exposed moments. I do remember being surprised and how easy the coloratura came to her and the second act of Cosi suited her. The production was…special.

        • Bill

          Mattila sang in the premiere of Schubert’s
          Fierrabras conducted by Abbado at the
          Wiener Staatsoper in 1990 (believe Studer
          for some reason was in the recording on DGG of the same production) and Mattila sang Donna Elvira there the same season. As you mentioned PCally Mattila sang a number of Rosalinde’s there in 1993 and 1994 and I certainly can see her in that role which requires beauty, playfulcharm, elan and a lovely voice able to get through the Csardas without screaming out the last high note. For some reason Mattila never returned to the Staatsoper until this past May when she sang a lieder recital there. I have seen Mattila in most of her Met roles and consider her to be a formidable artist.

      • CKurwenal

        Nevertheless, where I live, she didn’t do any Mozart after 1993.

  • PCally

    Every opera goer has their first diva moment. Mattila’s first met Elsa was mine. Vocally the role was probably her finest and dramatically she inhabited the Wilson production that managed to upstage everyone in the cast and liven up a staging I didn’t particularly care for. Her initial Salome and Fidelio excursions at the met were staggering, vocally and dramatically, and alongside Soderstrom she’s my all time favorite Janacek soprano. I was at the second ROH Ariadne run and was stunned at how much luster had come back to her voice since I had last heard her at the met, if anything her voice is richer and warmer than it was in her prime. These days when I listen to recordings, even ones from her prime, after having listened to a much wider variety of singers, I’ve become more aware of the little blips in her vocal armory that her critics have pointed out to me, but to me in its prime it was the most beautiful voice I’ve heard live (even more so than Fleming, whom I adored at her best) and only Waltraud Meier has stunned me with her interpritive abilities to the same extent Mattila has. If her return to the met is any indication, she’s got her groove back and has a solid set of good years left in her.

    Also, thank you for referencing her Arabella. She only sang it a handful of times and certain sections of the role called undue attention to the tendency of her voice to get a bit unruly in softer music, but the sound was so ideal for the music and no one has done as much dramatically with the role. No ice princess, but an earthy yet vulnerable girl.

    • ines

      I agree on that Arabella- stunning. And I had a ticket for it but could not go…I saw her as the Contessa in the 80ties, and then it happened; Elisabeth in Don Carlos at C Garden… since then , I try to catch her when I can… a surprise Kundry was really good some 3 weeks ago. A comeback of sorts for me, after having felt that her voice and acting started to lose something… ( Tosca and a late Jenufa and even Emilia Marty for me ….) Other highlights have been Amelia Boccanegra in Florence, Salome in Paris and a Katà Kabanova that same year.
      Love her Fidelio and Kostelnicka ( only on tape…).
      Maybe time (and high notes ) ran out, but she could have been a very good Minnie.
      Was it in 89, I think , that Mattila and Renee Fleming appeared in Don Giovanni together in Houston. From that year there is an Ilia from S.F. opera, that I would love to hear.
      Curiously, her studio recordings have not been that exciting…
      A great career and more to come.

      • PCally

        Yeah I think (most of ) her studio work tends to call attention to her flaws rather than her strengths and lack the viscerality and white hot intensity described above that she brings in live performances. As someone who was actually a bit underwhelmed by the Emilia Marty at the met, I also was fearing that the voice was going and the acting turning into a caricature. But the last few things I’ve seen found her in super shape vocally and remarkably detailed and truthful in her acting.

        • Big Finn

          Mattila’s voice is not “microphone friendly”, something elemental is missing compared to when you experience her live.

      • Armerjacquino

        I saw Mattila at CG as Fiordiligi, three years after she won the first Cardiff. As often with COSI- for example the most recent CG production- it was cast mainly with young singers at the beginning of their careers. But what a cast! Mattila and Von Otter as the sisters, Aler and Shimell as the lovers, and the more experienced Lilian Watson and Walter Berry as Despina and Alfonso. Mattila was quite spectacular (I bought a pirate from House of Opera a while back to confirm that this wasn’t just the opinion of an excited 13 year old). In particular I’ve never heard a better blend of voices for the sisters. Marriner obviously thought so too as they played the parts for him in the studio in a gorgeous and oddly neglected recording.

        Anyway, Mattila then came back for the first run of Johannes Schaaf’s majestic production of NOZZE. The cast- Allen, Desderi, McLaughlin- was about as good as you could get for this opera in the late 80s but Mattila was all over the place. Nervous, hooty, out of tune, lacking in confidence. By the time the production was revived a year later she had been very happily replaced by Carol Vaness, the last piece of the puzzle which made this production unforgettable.

        It was at this point that I believe Mattila was undergoing both personal and vocal crises. However, it wasn’t long until she released a rather eclectic recital on Philips (Martern Aller Arten, Leise Leise, the Jewel Song, Sombre Foret, and what is still the best version of the Rusalka aria I’ve ever heard) where she seemed right back on form and the voice seemed twice the size it had been before. Despite the hideous fluffy pink jumper she wore in the cover photo, it was and remains one of my favourite vocal recitals.

        I agree with Ines about most of her great later portrayals, although I’m not convinced by the suggestion of Minnie. For some reason (and not one which is immediately apparent) Puccini never quite worked.

        • grimoaldo2

          “Mattila was all over the place. Nervous, hooty, out of tune, lacking in confidence.”
          Yes,I saw that too and I totally agree with you , I did not like her performance *at all* and that was the first time I saw her live and I sort of wrote her off as someone I wanted to see again.
          I don’t remember what the next performance I saw her in was but that is the only negative experience I had. Elisabetta in Don Carlos, Elsa, Lisa Queen of Spades, oh my god what a searing performance, Chrysothemis,Jenufa, all at ROH, all staggering. Arabella, I saw too, I am sorry, that is not an opera for me. Recently at San Francisco her Kostelnicka was just titanic.
          But I don’t really see why she needs to be compared to Fleming who has given me much enjoyment, I think particularly of Amelia Grimaldi, Violetta, concert performance of Rusalka, all at ROH. Loved her Marschallin also way long time ago now with Susan Graham.But I vowed never to sit through that whole opera again after that performance, all that stuff with Baron Ochs is something I am never going to endure again in what time I have left.

  • berkeleygirl

    Oh, what a glorious paean to a truly special artist! It’s funny how your experience lines up with Mattila’s vocal breakthrough after taking on Chrysothemis in the mid-90s. She’s spoken of how she was finally able to let go, trust her technique, and give everything to the music.

    I’ve cherished her for years, but have only had the pleasure of seeing her live on three occasions: Eva at SFO in the early 90s; more recently, in Chicago, as Manon Lescaut and, unforgettably, Katya Kabanova. No, her voice is not Italianate, but she sailed through that demanding role. The opera may not be long but, from her first entrance, Manon is rarely offstage. It can be daunting, especially knowing you have to summon the power for “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” in Act IV. Mattila sailed through the evening, dying with some of the most ethereal pianissimi that I’ve ever heard. Her Katya -- sweet jeebus -- is etched in my brain. Again, those floated pianissimi! Most of all, though, I left gobsmacked by her profound humanity.

    Sadly, she hasn’t been back to Chicago in a while. Dare I hope for her Kostelnicka? To raise the Fleming comparison, at time when Renee is moving towards retirement from opera, Mattila is clearly following Leonie’s path. I’d go so far to say that, in this clip, in one of Rysanek’s signature roles, Mattila rises above all who’ve come before her. I’ve watched it countless time, and it still leaves me breathless.

    Lastly, thanks for mentioning the Paris Arabella! Maddeningly, the clips with Hampson have disappeared from YouTube (ironically, or not?, after the Fleming/Hampson DVD was released). Thankfully, we still have this -- arguably the greatest Arabella/Zdenka pairing of all time.

    • What’s the last link to? It doesn’t work for me. If it’s “the greatest Arabella/Zdenka pairing of all time” I’m kind of expecting Della Casa and Güden… ;-)

      • rapt

        The link didn’t work for me either, but a YouTube seach for the duet with Mattila turned up Mattila and Bonney.

  • Christopher, there are so many parallels between your experiences and feelings about Mattila and my own. I first came across her in that delightful Watch Duet at the Levine Gala. I saw her live in person a couple of years later in Fidelio. She blew everyone (including me) away. A few years later, I saw her amazing Salome in house (the first one with Gergiev – the HD broadcast a few years later less great). I wanted to go back to NYC to see that Jenufa with Silja. I knew it would be great the minute it was announced but I couldn’t make it work.

    My next live experience wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I saw her in recital and wrote my first review for parterre. And I couldn’t be happier that she’s experiencing such a great autumn to her career. I’d love to experience her Kostelnicka and Ortrud (and I’m sorry never to have seen her Elsa).

    I, too, regret that the Pikovaya Dama with Heppner/Rysanek wasn’t videotaped. I’d trade in a dozen of the Met HDs over the last 10 years to see that one.

    • PCally

      I regret that the met has yet to release that initial Salome. I’ve heard conflicting reasons, but whatever the case one of the performances was filmed yet has never seen the light of day. I thought the revival was pretty tremendous myself, but I too think it would be nice to have her earlier performance made available. The Paris performances are easy to track down and are pretty great, but the role isn’t quite settled into her voice and she hasn’t really made the role her own quite yet. The premiere met run was staggering.

      • I do think the revival in 2008 was still very good, just not on the level of the initial run which, as you say, was staggering. I had my face in my hands when the curtain fell. People were cheering wildly but I couldn’t make a noise. It was that good.

        The 2004 run was filmed (with Terfel as Jokanaan and S. Jerusalem as Herod). It may have turned out to be the last telecast of the Volpe era. I always assumed that Gelb blocked its release because he had HD plans for the revival. But everything about the revival was less than the original.

        • ines

          Ines

        • ines

          The dance in Paris was far superior than the one at the Met. Mattila is a singer of her own ways; no webpage no facebook no instagram… just let the art speak…. on the other hand she was very open about the operation on her vocal cords and about menopause affecting her voice for some years

    • Big Finn

      The last I heard her live was as Ariadne at ROH in the fall of 2015. A splendid production well conceived and directed, her acting was wonderfully on-the-spot. But what surprised me most at this later stage of her career was her vocal condition and performance, utterly ravishing, deeply moving.

  • Leontiny

    The ROH Arabella was one of those evenings etched on my soul. She was in glamorous voice, looked spectacular in the costumes, moved and acted well, and fortunately for me sitting in the Balcony sang much of the role from a second storey which placed her right in front of me. Hampson was very fine, as was Bonney, and bonus of Damrau hanging upside down from a balcony and warbling the Milli superbly. For once the libretto made perfect sense, I heard the piece as a hymn to the soprano voice, and the mesh covering over the orchestra saved them from the flowers that literally rained down at curtain. And Dohnanyi in the pit. Heaven. I went twice.