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Posts Tagged ‘Karita Mattila’

The Metropolitan Opera House has been more faithful to Russian opera than many important opera houses around the world outside Russia. Many Russian singers have achieved international fame at the Met – and the New York audience is quite keen on this repertoire. That said, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Oneguin is not necessarily a work in need of advocacy – it is probably the best known Russian opera in the West and the Met accordingly gave it well-loved singers.

Robert Carsen’s production has seen some glamourous casting – it has been featured on DVD with Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in leading roles – but it is not in itself a glamourous production. On the contrary, it is simplicity itself. The bare white stage receives props for each scene and colour is largely provided by Michael Levine’s beautiful costumes. In the countryside scenes, the use of autumn leaves is poetic and creates the necessary atmosphere, but the Moscow scenes just needed something. As it is, the audience has the impression of watching a rehearsal.

If I had to mention the reason for this Onegin’s sucess, I would mention Jiri Belohlavek’s conducting. To start with, the Met’s orchestra seemed transfigured – offering voluminous, rich and warm sounds throughout. Belohlavek’s noble, pensive approach fits the work melancholy – some may say that he drained a bit of the Russian-ness of the score, but I considered the gain in expressive, almost Straussian atmosphere most welcome. 

Karita Mattila’s soprano is more smoky and less impetuous in both ends that it used to be – but the sound is irresistibly warm and creamy. She soared in ensembles and fulfilled her solos with immense depth of feeling. Her stage portrayal, from shy teenager to socialite, was expertly produced. Ekaterina Semenchuk’s solid mezzo soprano made Olga a bit more substantial than we are used to see.  Although Thomas Hampson was a bit fazed by Act III demands, his was an intelligent and elegantly sung performance. However, Piotr Beczala will remain the audience’ s favourite member in the cast. He sung with beauty of tone, sensitivity and good taste – Nicolai Gedda is the name that came to my mind. And this is a high compliment.

Among the minor roles, Wendy White deserves praise for a smoothly sung Madame Larina and  Barbara Dever was a touching Filippyevna. James Morris, on the other hand, was a bit rusty as Prince Gremin – and the role ideally requires a darker and deeper voice.

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Jürgen Flimm’s production of R. Strauss’s Salome for the Met was first shown in 2004 with Karita Mattila in the title role. Four years later, the Finnish soprano tackles again in New York this uniquely challenging role in New York in the same production – but things have changed somehow since last time.

When I write about changes, I am naturally refering to musical aspects, since I was not able to attend the original run of performances, but only to listen to one of them on the radio. I remember back then that I had doubts about Mattila as Salome. My experience is that the part is pretty unsingable for any soprano without a slightly metallic edge to help the voice to run into the auditorium over a dense orchestral sound without resorting to extremes of loudness throughout. That description does not apply to Mattila’s velvety tonal quality, but she could at her prime nonetheless conjure the necessary lightness and stand up to the taxing high dramatic notes that sit in the limit of her resources.

Not anymore, I am afraid. Although the floating quality of her voice remains taylor-made for Strauss, the loss of tonal sheen makes her performance small-scaled in terms of volume. The closing scene left me in the end of my seat for the wrong reasons – I was actually wondering if she would make it to the end, since her voice has lost entirely tonal quality in forte passages and exposed Spitzennoten were quite wayward by then. In compensation, her portrait of the perverse princess has become a bit more complex. I find it particularly commendable the way Mattila centers her approach around a sense of intoxication. Her main prop in the show is a bottle of champagne and, in the closing scene, the many instances of repeated text or questions to herself are made to recreate a drunken person’s emphatic way of speaking.

Despite the strain and lack of cutting power, it is still a presentable performance as a whole – a tour de force by an admirable singer actress unfortunately a bit past her prime in vocal terms. From a distance, Mattila still looks very well for her age. Although one would not think of a teenager, the most important point is that she remains an immensely attractive woman who can be proud of her five seconds of nudity in the end of her dance. Speaking of that, I don’t know if its tentativeness was made on purpose, but actually she does not dance. She does some steps and then walks and runs about a lot. It is true that Salome is not a professional dancer as some productions suggest, but there could be something more presentable anyway.  As a matter of fact, I don’t know if that was on purpose, but she actually made more dance steps everywhere else but in her proper dance number.

Although I could get used to Santo Loquasto’s nouveau riche sceneries, it is a bit cramped and the action had litte free space to develop. I don’t believe that the updating did the plot any good – the religious aspect seemed a bit lost in context, unless you could think that the story takes place in today’s Asia, but the women were not dressed accordingly if that was the idea. However, the black-clad angels of death were the silliest idea in the whole production. No – maybe that final scene, where Salome exposes her breast defiantly to the soldier’s executional sword. That just does not go with the music, which portrays her being killed by spears. In one word, I do think that a stronger concept in stage direction is seriously missing – actors throwing themselves to the ground seemed to be the only expressive tool available – when Narraboth kills himself, it is difficult to know who actually is dead after all, since so many people are lying down at that moment.

As for the musical aspects,  Patrick Summers did a beautiful job with the more lyrical passages, offering a basically acceptable transparent and multicolored orchestral sound, but the truth is that things got rather slack and pointless in more complex and/or declamatory passages. I suspect that a lack of acquaintance with the descriptive and motivic reference structure in the score is to blame. I must acknowledge, though, that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra’s strings proved to be in good shape. The same cannot be said of noisy and unnoble brass. The principal victim of the messy approach was the Herod’s long interventions before the closing scene. Kim Begley knows what is required from him, but he is too lightweight for the vastness of the Met. As a result, we got tangled orchestral sound while this gentleman was saying something in the background.

I don’t know what to say about Juha Uusitalo’s performance as Jochanaan – first because I could barely hear it. I felt really sorry for him for the embarassment of listening to his voice more clearly when he was supposed to be lying in the bottom of a cistern (apparently equipped with a high-end amplification system) than on stage right in front of us. As for Ildikó Komlósi, she sure has powerful top notes and understands what is required from her, but her German is rather inert, what makes most of her part pointless. She was also sabotaged by a direction who made her do nothing while her daughter seduces her husband, kisses a man’s severed head etc. Finally, I must single out Joseph Kaiser’s lyrically sung Narraboth.

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I’ve read around so many negative opinion on Karita Mattila’s Manon, especially from those who saw the cinecast, that I felt I should say something in her favour. First of all, it seems that the close-up shooting made Mattila’s acting seem ridiculous and unnatural. I must say that this was not the impression I had live at the theatre.

With the help of distance, she looked convincingly young. I am sure that the close-ups may have turned her jeune fille-acting a bit strange for a woman in her 50′s. But again – from a seat at the theatre, she looked believably innocent in act I (as she was supposed to).

When it comes to act II, it seems again that her spoiled-girl attitude didn’t survive the proximity of the cameras’ lenses.  Although one may discuss her choice to portray Manon that way, I may sound repetitive, but in the theatre she looked girlish enough to make it work. In any case, I think she has a point in her approach. There is nothing lady-like about Manon – she is not well-bred and all her elegance comes from her striking good-looks and sex appeal.

In one passage of Prevost’s book, Manon has arranged to meet one admirer in order to obtain some expensive gifts from him and then run away with Des Grieux. He is not entirely convinced she is being honest about the whole adventure, but she explains that, although she loves him, she cannot part with the prospect of making some money out of it. The plan is settled – she would insist to go to the Comédie with the rich gentleman and, during the intermission, she would invent an excuse and then run away.

While Des Grieux is strategically waiting for her, a young woman appears with a note from Manon. “G… M… has received her with politeness and magnificence beyond expectation. He covered her with presents and promised her the life of a queen. She assured me nonetheless that she had not forgotten me in this new splendour, but she was not able to convince G… M… to take her to the Comédie and had to postpone the pleasure of seeing me to another day. In order to make amends somehow for the distress those news may have caused, she had taken the pains to find me one of the most charming girls in Paris to deliver me this message. Yours faithfully, Manon Lescaut.”

Compared to something like that, kicking pillows and making fun of her dance teacher sounds rather innocent. I remember hearing a woman next to me saying she disagreed with Mattila’s intent to show Manon as a prostitute or something. But the truth is that this is not really far away from what the character is about. That said, I believe that libretto couldn’t help concentrating too much the plot into a few scenes and the singer/actress would be in more advantage in focusing her portrayal in the allure, the seduction (instead of the nastiness).

I know it is not fashionable to say good things about Kiri Te Kanawa, but I find her acting in the video from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, particularly convincing and effective. She takes advantage of her natural “iciness” to portray Manon’s selfishness and I do believe that this kind of haughtiness is something you find in many beautiful women who are convinced (probably by experience…) that the whole world is at her service.

In Manon’s case, reversal of fortune makes her finally see that in a particularly touching (in Prevost’s sentimentalized style) passage of the book: “You will be then the richest person in the universe, she answered, for, if there is no love in this world such as the one you feel for me, it is also impossible for someone to be more loved than you are. I make myself justice, she continued. I know too well that I have never deserved the exceptional attachment you formed for me. I have caused you suffering that you could have not forgiven without extreme generosity. I was shallow and flighty and, even if I have always desperately loved you, I was nothing but an ingrate. But you cannot believe how much I have changed. The tears you saw me shed so often since we have left France never had my own misery for object. I’ve ceased to feel miserable myself since you have started to share my fate with me. I have only cried out of tenderness and compassion for you. I cannot forgive myself for having been able to cause you distress. I cannot stop reproaching myself for my inconstancy and being moved on admiring what love has made you capable of doing for an unfortunate creature who was never worthy of these favours and who could never pay you even with all her blood, she added weeping abundantly, half  the trouble she has caused you”. [Please forgive the poor translations.]

As a final note, I am not speaking here of the musical aspects of Mattila’s Manon – the idea here is to say that I find the criticism against her acting in the Met’s production exaggerated. She has reasons to portray the character the way she did, as the serious artist she has always been.

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The title role in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is a tough piece of casting. It is clearly a part for a soprano lirico spinto, but its constant shifting into the lower end of the soprano range will always be a test for any lyric soprano. I must confess that my heart beats for only one Manon in the discography, Renata Tebaldi. Only she is able to keep loveliness and femininity down there. I acknowledge Maria Callas’s and Renata Scotto’s brilliantly crafted accounts of this role, but the sound alone of their voices does not play the trick for me. Manon is the kind of woman who can turn all heads in her direction the minute she walks in. If the singer’s tone lacks this inbuilt sexiness, she is just a clever girl pretending to be a beautiful one. And that is definitely not what is wanted here.

Karita Mattila, for example, has it – her warm velvety soprano is sensuousness itself. Her In quelle trine morbide knocked the audience out in its sexy daydreaminess, for instance. However, at least at this stage of her career, Mattila’s voice shies away both at the bottom and at the top of her range. Her low notes only pierce through if thrown in chest voice and her acuti lack tone and risk to go off track. She often disguises that with dramatic effects, but the frequentation of heavy roles is not doing any favour to her voice. In terms of characterization, her Manon has a rather modern approach – something of a Paris Hilton (prision scene included) without the inheritance. She performs the concept with skill, particularly in act II, when she is not afraid of going larger than life. Her closing scene, however, was very subdued and both soprano and conductor went for a more exhausted than desperate Sola, perduta, abandonata.

I was suspicious about Marcello Giordani’s Des Grieux. This is a tenor formerly identified with bel canto roles tackling a rather heavy part, but I have to say his instincts were right. His bright tenor showed no discomfort with this writing and he sang stylishly and sensitively throughout. Dwayne Croft was a rich-toned Lescaut and Sean Panikkar displayed a healthy, likeable tenor in the small role of Edmondo.

James Levine is an exemplary Puccinian, building rich textured sonorities without drowning his singer in orchestral loudness – his subtle handling of the intermezzo was most refreshing.

The old production with Desmond Heeley’s sets and costumes has aged rather well – I have to confess that Manon is one of those operas I prefer to see in a traditional staging – its minuets, wigs, deportations to the colonies etc do not go with cocktail parties, telephones and airplanes.

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