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