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 might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
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.