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Karita Mattila [Photo by Lauri Eriksson courtesy of IMG Artists]
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.

Karita Mattila at Carnegie Hall

Above: Karita Mattila [Photo by Lauri Eriksson courtesy of IMG Artists]


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.

John Yohalem

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