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.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
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.