Karita Mattila in Recital

Karita Mattila photo by Lauri Eriksson

New York, NY – It is impossible to resist Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. She is a woman of incredible beauty, impressive stature, and a stage personality so magnetic you are left with little choice but to allow yourself to become enraptured in the irresistible je ne sais quoi that emanates from her smoldering eyes. Renowned for her portrayal of some of operas most psychologically rich roles such as Strauss’s Salome, Janacek’s Jenufa, Katya Kabanova and Emilia Marty, Puccini’s Tosca, and Beethoven’s Leonore, her lack of inhibition is best experienced live in a theater.

On December 10, however, Carnegie Hall saw a different side to the Finnish spitfire, who, even in her fifth decade of life, is as entrancing and fearlessly committed as she was when she made her debut. The recital is a scary medium for a singer since they are entirely exposed for over an hour supported only by a piano and, hopefully, the collective willpower of the audience. The inherent monotony of listening to one singer for that long begs the performer to select a program of familiar and obscure tunes, a variety of moods and styles, and music in which they can excel and say something unique. Ms. Mattila and her pianist, the iconic Martin Katz, chose an uneven program that at times soared with inspiration and other times fell flat with stagnancy.

The five songs in Poulenc’s Banalités were the perfect combination of individual vignettes that allowed Ms. Mattila to open the first half of the recital with a variety of personalities, the faux-folk hokiness of “Chanson d’Orkenise,” the sensual ennui of “Hôtel,” the salon sauntering of “Voyage a Paris” to the isolated cries of “Fagnes de Wallonie” and “Sanglots.” Less interesting was Debussy’s Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire. Lying somewhere between Debussy’s youthful obsession with Wagner and his immersion into Symbolist poetry, these five songs were depressingly pensive. Mattila is an artist whose response to the music and text is instinctual rather than meticulously rehearsed, but she seemed cool, detached, and worried about getting through the pieces rather than doing something with them. A few sour attempts at exposed high notes, both soft and loud, exposed the negative effects that age and over-use has had on her instrument.

The highlight of the evening was Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen’s “Four Dream Songs,” each beginning from nothing and building into an awesome display of sonority, harmony, and texture. These songs brought out the Mattila that was missing in the first half: scalding intensity, exacting subtlety, and a selfless desire to share this music with the audience. The third song “Three dreams, each within each,” in which an unborn baby sees the dream of his mother and realizes that he must be born and die to understand the meaning of the dream, was the most impressive of the cycle, combining rich harmonic colors with a lush, full texture, masterfully played by Katz. Mattila let loose  in the dramatically high tessitura in the climax of the song, her cool and perfectly round high notes filling the hall.

Building upon the satisfactory taste that lingered after Four Dream Songs were five songs by Joseph Marx, a 20th century German composer whose contribution of over 100 Lieder to the repertory are only recently being rediscovered and appreciated by a wider audience. Mattila responded well to Marx’s syncretic musical language of Neo-romanticism, Impressionism, and mild atonalism. She relished in the morbid sensuality of “Valse de Chopin,” and her voice bloomed in the highly Romantic phrases of “Selige Nacht” and “Hat dich die Liebe berührt.” She is not a singer to whom one listens for perfectly technical execution; the humanity and fallibility upon which Mattila’s voice relies makes her artistry magnetic and addicting.

Following an evening of “serious business,” Mattila gifted the audience with two hilarious encores. In “I could have danced all night,” she waltzed with herself around the stage, a mature woman totally enraptured by the excitement of new love. She sang it with grit, sex, and earthiness. The final encore, a Finnish folk song which she translated into English for us before singing it (think “My Funny Valentine” Scandinavian style), was a generous glance into Mattila’s personal life. Her guard was down, and it was this special brand of intimacy, which is stupidly discouraged and feared in classical music, that makes Karita Mattila a real artist and not just a singer.

Photo by Lauri Eriksson