Peter Mattei, one of my two favorite baritones these days, returned to the Met last week in Don Giovanni, prompting “Trove Thursday” to offer the sterling Swede in a more unexpected title role, Britten’s Billy Budd. 

While one may complain about some of the Met’s casting decisions, one must also be grateful for the almost yearly presence of Mattei since his Met debut in 2002 as the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro. By the end of this Mozart run he will have performed at the house nearly 150 times; I can think of no other opera company that invites him so regularly.

Although I wasn’t entirely convinced by his Rossini Figaro he’s returned to that role often as he has the Count in which he most recently was one of the few shining lights at the premiere of the dreary Richard Eyre staging, yet another example of the current Met Mozart malaise.

Mattei’s meltingly beautiful, strikingly humane Wolfram enlivened the faded Schenk Tannhäuser a few seasons ago while the tragic death of Dmitri Hvorostovsky allowed the 2017 return of his haughty, haunted Eugene Onegin who was loved then rejected by a transformed Anna Netrebko, their electric collaboration happily preserved in an HD transmission.

I suspect most of us initially thought of him as “just” a suave Mozartean until the shattering 2009 Patrice Chéreau production of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead.

While it was a true ensemble effort, the performance (I saw several) was dominated by Mattei’s harrowing portrayal of Shishkov which surely paved the way for his shattering Amfortas—gorgeously sung and intensely acted—first seen at the Met in 2013. Both of these broken men suggest that his upcoming Wozzeck will be absolutely essential.

He also will perform Schubert’s Die Winterreise next January at Zankel Hall, one of three versions to be heard next season around town—the other two by Eric Owens and Joyce Di Donato(!).

This Frankfurt in-house Britten recording isn’t in the best sound but it documents Mattei’s poignant Billy, a role to which he’s now unlikely to return. It also features the Vere of John Mark Ainsley, a sterling English tenor best known for his Handel and Purcell and thus very much in the tradition of his role’s creator, Peter Pears.

Budd continues to be mounted with increasing regularity. Deborah Warner’s production comes to the Royal Opera later this month with the apparently indispensable Jacques Imbrailo in the title role.

I saw him several years ago at BAM as the doomed sailor in Michael Grandage’s production which sails to the San Francisco in September with John Chest who won’t have to reveal his own (chest, that is) as Grandage—in a staging leagues better than his current Mozart mishap in which Mattei is starring—eschews the recent vogue for beefcake Billys.


Britten: Billy Budd

Oper Frankfurt
7 December 2007
In-house recording

Billy Budd — Peter Mattei
Captain Vere — John Mark Ainsley
John Claggart — Clive Bayley
Mr. Redburn — Simon Bailey
Mr Ratcliffe– Andreas Macco
Mr. Flint — Gregory Frank
Dansker — Carlos Krause
Red Whiskers — Hans-Jürgen Lazar
Squeak — Michael McCown

Conductor — Paul Daniel

My other favorite baritone is, by the way, Gerald Finley whom one can hear in a superb selection of orchestrated Schubert lieder.

Billy Budd 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 files will appear in your download directory.

Over 200 other podcast tracks are always available from iTunes for free, or via any RSS reader.

A recently published archive listing all “Trove Thursday” offerings in alphabetical order by composer is also available.

Photo: Mats Backer