The Passions of Karita Mattila

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LONDON—There are many ways of distinguishing among opera companies. These include the variety of offerings, the quality of the resident orchestra and chorus, and the passion and engagement of audiences. I think another measurement should be which companies and their managers have the wisdom to seek the services of the fabulous Finnish soprano Karita Mattila.

I was reminded of this while watching Mattila at the Royal Opera in her role debut as Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck, with Simon Keenlyside in the title role. Wozzeck is a masterpiece, but one that is challenging for artists and audiences. Performers must embrace and comprehend the music and the dramatic elements, simultaneously having both the preparation and the freedom to play these heartbreaking roles. No opera in which a character, the Captain, says early on, "I worry about the world when I think about eternity” is going to be an evening of light entertainment.

Covent Garden’s 2002 production, by Keith Warner, is full of vivid and arresting images and gestures. While most of them were cogent with the ideas and music of Berg’s opera, I suspect that they worked better previously when other artists, who required structure to be theatrically viable, were in the cast. In this case, I felt that the production limited two very talented and intuitive performers by asking them to conform to the director’s ideas, good though many of them were. I would love to see Keenlyside and Mattila rely on their own natures and instincts as Wozzeck and Marie. In March 2014, the Met will have the very enticing pairing of Thomas Hampson and Deborah Voigt. I hope that in its next revival of the fine 1997 Mark Lamos production, Keenlyside and Mattila will be in the leading roles.

An Owner of Many Roles

A while back, I wrote an article about role ownership as exemplified by Kiri Te Kanawa. By “ownership” I refer what happens when a singer and a part are so well-matched and her performance so unforgettable that the opera lover will inevitably compare future artists to the memory of the "owner."

Among active singers, I can think of no one who owns as many roles as Karita Mattila. I find it interesting that both Mattila and Te Kanawa studied with Vera Rózsa and I wonder what that renowned teacher taught them. Te Kanawa was an extraordinary and beautiful singer with one of the most gorgeous voices imaginable. Mattila, now 53, has a lovely voice too and looks fantastic on the stage, but she uses her looks only when the role asks for them. She is a phenomenal actor, the best in opera, but never allows her acting to overwhelm her musicianship.

After the Wozzeck, I jotted down Mattila roles I have been awed by and the list got very long quite fast. Her Leonore in Fidelio was thrillingly fresh and bold and deeply romantic.

She is the only singer who ever made me care about Eva in Die Meistersinger. She was a deeply insecure Elsa in Lohengrin, her eyes seemingly glazed in the face of the mysterious knight as well as Ortrud’s wrath. One day she will be a great Ortrud.

I remember her Tatiana in Eugene Onegin (2009, with Thomas Hampson in the title role), as if it were yesterday. She was one of three distinguished Tatianas at the Met in recent years, along with Renée Fleming and Anna Netrebko. But, as one Russian operagoer observed to me recently, of these three “only Mattila’s Letter Scene was really about something.” While I certainly found a lot to admire in the performances of Fleming and Netrebko, there was both a romantic urgency and deep pathos in Mattila’s interpretation that I will never forget. She and Hampson were also scintillating in the romantic give-and-take of Arabella in Paris in 2002.

I will never forget her 1995 Lisa in Queen of Spades at the Met, in a new production conducted by Valery Gergiev that included Ben Heppner, the debut of Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the unforgettable farewell of Leonie Rysanek. Mattila’s singing and acting were so transcendent that I can still summon the sight and the sound of them all these years later. How sad that it—and Rysanek—were not captured on video for posterity.

If Mattila cannot quite claim ownership as Elisabeth in the French-language Don Carlos, she was extraordinary in a strong cast that included Waltraud Meier, Roberto Alagna, Hampson and José van Dam. Look for the DVD.

You might not recall her Musetta in La Bohéme in 1996 at the Met. Many people might remember that performance for the debut of Alagna and the expectations heaped on him, as well as the fact that he was appearing alongside his soon-to-be wife Angela Gheorghiu. But Mattila’s zesty Musetta enlivened acts two and three and her acting was compassionate and delicate in the last act.

The duet from Die Fledermaus, performed with Hakan Hagegard at a Met gala in 1996, showed these two Nordic artists at their sexy and sophisticated best and made me pine to hear them in a complete performance of Johann Strauss’s operetta.

To many people, the iconic Mattila role is Salome, which I saw in Paris in 2003 and at the Met in 2004 and 2008. Note the superb physicality of her Dance of the Seven Vails, from a performance in Paris.  And then watch the extraordinary final scene, this performance from the Met in 2008.

She also has a remarkable affinity for intense naturalism of Janacek roles such as Jenufa and Kát'a Kabanová. Her last Met role was as Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Case in 2011. She received thunderous ovations from Met audiences. I recall the first performance, in which she had to descend steps in very high heels and nearly took a spill. The audience gasped but, with her great athleticism and sense of the stage, not only righted herself but integrated the moment into her character. 

We live in an era when opera singers are often hired just for their looks, with less regard for the vocal and dramatic personalities. They might be nice to look at and pleasant to listen to, but they do not move us. This only makes Karita Mattila more rare, and more extraordinary. She is one of only a small handful of singers today who really have it all. If they cannot come to us, then we must try to go where they are, if only to be reminded how wonderful opera can be.