Monday, October 08, 2012

A Giving Artist

On Wednesday evening, my parents and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear soprano Karita Mattila in recital.

We last heard Mattila in recital—in the same venue, Ordway Center—in 2007.

Within the last five years, we had also seen and heard Mattila four times at the Metropolitan Opera, appearing in “Jenufa”, “Manon Lescaut”, “Salome” and “Eugene Onegin”. In fact, Josh has never attended a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in which Mattila was not the featured soprano; one of the jokes in my family is that Josh refers to the Metropolitan Opera as The Karita Mattila Opera Company.

(Things may change tomorrow night: Josh and I have tickets for the Metropolitan Opera’s “Otello”, a Mattila-free performance. However, I have come down with what appears to be a case of influenza, and we may not be able to make the trip to New York.)

Prior to 2007, I had seen and heard Mattila in performance at the Wiener Staatsoper, the Paris Opera and The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, singing Wagner, R. Strauss and Verdi.

Mattila has a voice of significant size. On her good notes, she is prone to “let ‘er rip”, blowing the listener back in his seat. Otherwise, Mattila has a white voice, with little color and no distinctive timbre. I do not find her voice inherently attractive—and her voice has turned increasingly acidic in recent years, with the result that Mattila is obtaining fewer and fewer important engagements with each passing year. Further, like any aging soprano, Mattila is having trouble controlling her voice. Pitch has become a problem for her—on any held note, Mattila is like a racecar driver who keeps circling the track until locating the right exit—and the voice does not flow as easily or as smoothly as it did ten years ago. One may now hear gearshifts as Mattila changes registers.

Mattila’s voice does not take to the microphone; the few recordings she has made, almost all from the first decade of her career, are not memorable exemplars of the singer’s art.

In the theater, Mattila can be effective. She is a tall, striking woman, and she generally dominates the stage, no matter who else is onstage with her. She is an eager, enthusiastic stage performer, full of pep and vim—but nowise a subtle, sophisticated actress.

On the recital platform, Mattila presents an imposing figure—but as soon as she opens her mouth, she presents nothing more than earnest, well-studied interpretations. One hears nothing original or unique. Everything is generalized. One song sounds very much like another. The detailed, finely-etched interpretations of a Schwarzkopf or a Seefried are from a different solar system than the one Mattila inhabits.

Given all that, we enjoyed Wednesday’s recital. As generic, all-purpose singing, it was very nice. Given the state of Mattila’s voice, it was very nice.

Indeed, we enjoyed Mattila’s 2012 recital more than her 2007 recital, probably because the 2012 program was a better one and because Mattila has, in the last five years, learned to relax on the recital platform. (Mattila appeared to have been uncomfortable, even tense, in 2007.)

The first half of the program was devoted to Berg’s “Seven Early Songs”, four Brahms lieder, and three Finnish songs. The second half of the program consisted of three Debussy chansons (from the Baudelaire set) and four Strauss lieder.

I enjoyed everything, including the Debussy (which did not sound remotely French). Even the Finnish songs had a certain charm.

I wish Mattila had saved the Berg for last. The Berg received the finest interpretation of the evening, and Mattila should have performed the Berg as a continuation of the German lied handed down from Brahms and Strauss—and with her voice fully warmed-up.

I understand, however, why Mattila reserved the Strauss for last. In the Strauss, Mattila let loose, singing with passion and abandon. It was the first passion and abandon of the evening—everything earlier had been somewhat buttoned-up—and the audience responded warmly to Mattila the giving artist. Mattila is, undeniably, a giving artist, which is why audiences everywhere respond to her.

Nonetheless, Mattila sang the Strauss like Wagner, which is not exactly what the Strauss required.

And Wagner is what Mattila—a natural Wagner singer—should have been singing.

The pianist was Martin Katz. Katz had also served as Mattila’s accompanist in 2007. On Wednesday, he was, as always, excellent.

Mattila needs to reconsider her makeup practice. Mattila wears enough makeup for twenty women, and Mattila’s makeup is badly-applied to boot.

Might I suggest that Mattila concede the makeup sweepstakes to Nikolaj Znaider, graciously declare him to be the all-time champ, and cut back in future?

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