16 Dec 2011
Karita Mattila at Carnegie Hall
In 1983, Karita Mattila was the first singer to win the Cardiff Singer of the World competition.
It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.
On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
In 1983, Karita Mattila was the first singer to win the Cardiff Singer of the World competition.
She has been before the public now for nearly thirty years, a tidy career. She is still beautiful, and so is her voice, floods of burnished silver at the top where it can ring bell-clear and sky-silver as a moonlit Finnish winter, her sensuous chest voice deep as spring-fed wells. There are rough patches in her voice’s silvery upward stretch that may have been due to dry Stern Hall on a cold winter’s night or to too much Puccini, for whose she has lately developed an unsuitable penchant. She is a natural actress, though, and the small poetic pictures of art song suit her as well as peasant girls like Jenufa or desperate housewives like Fidelio. She has, at last, taken up Matter Makropoulos (in San Francisco), an opera she was born to grace, and New York eagerly awaits her performances in that work at the Met in late Spring.
In the meantime, on December 10, we had a recital that, in the manner traditional with this singer, featured four sets of songs unfamiliar from previous Carnegie appearances, one of them contemporary and Finnish, plus two spectacular gowns and the encore of a Broadway standard. At her first lieder concert here, I well remember, she concluded, courtesy of West Side Story, “Good night, good night, and when you go to sleep, dream of me!” and we all did.
The first half of this year’s program consisted of French songs by Poulenc and Debussy. French is not the repertory or the language that immediately comes to mind in Mattila’s case (though her operatic triumphs have included a memorable Paris Don Carlos), but she is a singer who likes to challenge both her own limits and audience expectations. In the Poulenc songs, the set of Apollinaire poems known as “Banalités,” she seized on opportunities for wild changes of mood that the many colors of her shimmering soprano happily display. The nonsense eroticism of “Chanson d’Orkenise,” the sensuality of “Hôtel,” where each phrase seemed, without dragging, to stretch itself languidly on a chaise-longue before us, the jollity of “Voyage à Paris,” the sad contrasts of “Sanglots,” all played to the singer’s expressive strengths, though her French was far from idiomatic. I wish she’d sung more Poulenc; her wit marches with his.
Debussy’s “Five Poems of Baudelaire,” a rare visitor to the recital hall precisely because its length and crepuscular moodiness can trap a singer who cannot vary her style within their narrow range, were marvelously sustained meditations in Mattila’s hands, never maudlin or dull, the bright metallic sound reaching to the heights (not so easy for her as they used to be), shining on certain phrases like refined lighting. “Balcon” and “Le jet d’eau” was especially lovely. It was a superb experiment, and an achievement, but these are not the ideal songs for her art any more than Puccini is her proper operatic home. (What a pity she never sang Sieglinde.)
After the break, and a change of costume from the rather shattering silver ensemble for the French songs to a less obviously flamboyant blue-purple gown with aquamarine jewels, Mattila sang a series of “Dream Songs” by Aulis Sallinen, Finland’s most distinguished living composer, whose The Red Line was featured at the Met when the Finnish National Opera visited New York. The dream songs are prevailingly moody or tense, not explorations of nightmare but of the uneasy states of mind that disturb our dreams, raising questions without answering them. Sallinen’s off-kilter melodies were haunting, precisely as if fragments heard in dreams were coming together in a way that made its own sense, its own clarity, which was not the clarity of being wide awake at all. The Sallinen songs did not exploit Mattila’s famous metallic gleam that New Yorkers have loved in so many operas but revealed deeper registers, below the break in her voice, murky and thrilling and oppressed as suited the texts.
It is a noble thing that Mattila, perhaps Finland’s most famous living singer (unless it’s Matti Salminen), includes a set of Finnish songs whenever she performs a concert. Sometimes these songs have been very modern and difficult in idiom, though she has revealed their expressiveness to us. The Sallinen songs, composed in 1973, were in a contemporary style that would not, I think, be difficult to enjoy by anyone who delights in lieder. Mattila, and the songs, were very persuasive.
Audience desires and the performer’s gifts were best united in her last set, five songs by Joseph Marx, a twentieth-century Austrian composer who clung to his tuneful romantic roots and is far too little known. As with many of the Debussy and Sallinen songs, the theme was usually nocturnal, but Marx’s nights are filled with magic, with woodland atmosphere, with soothing or erotic noises. One particular delight was “Valse de Chopin,” where, to a melody in the manner of that composer, Marx devises a little imagistic drama of high romanticism’s obsession with love and death, but somehow his own merrier muse touches the bleak images. Here the singer seemed to exult in giving us her music (no less so, that prince of accompanists, Martin Katz, who hurled himself into his solo coda like a dancer taking on Ravel’s La Valse).
After the printed program, Mattila admitted she’d been “lazy” in preparing encores. There were only two. One was an entertaining Finnish folk song; the other “I Could Have Danced All Night”—I know, all of you thought Birgit Nilsson owned that one. Mattila did not go up an extra octave on the final note, as Nilsson used to do, but she articulated every sentiment in the song in a way that made Nilsson seem chilly and Julie Andrews terrifically bland. Mattila “spread her wings” and her “heart took flight,” and every word in the lyric had meaning and poetic sweep. Then Martin Katz turned the song into a waltz and our prima donna was a young girl at her first ball, dancing with glamorous, invisible partners, swaying about the stage, stars in her eyes and in all of ours.