Karita Mattila at Carnegie Hall

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
, “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 “BanalitÈs,” 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 “HÙtel,” where each phrase seemed, without dragging, to
stretch itself languidly on a chaise-longue before us, the jollity of “Voyage
‡ 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
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

image_description=Karita Mattila [Photo by Lauri Eriksson courtesy of IMG Artists]
product_title=Karita Mattila at Carnegie Hall
product_id=Above: Karita Mattila [Photo by Lauri Eriksson courtesy of IMG Artists]