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.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
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.