F. PAUL DRISCOLL salutes the distinguished achievement of the OPERA NEWS Awards winner.
Photographed by Cory Weaver as Emilia Marty in the San Francisco Opera production of The Makropulos Case, 2010
© Cory Weaver 2012
Karita Mattila is an artist who confounds expectations. I have attended her performances in the opera house and the recital hall for more than twenty years, and on every occasion — whatever the venue and whatever the music — her courage and imagination have amazed me. Her choices as a singer and as an actress are invariably daring and original, characterized by her fierce commitment to the moment. Mattila lives completely in the present tense and never rests on her laurels or repeats herself, delivering her music with the concentrated grace of a true champion. She has a voice that is most often described in terms reserved for varieties of light — radiant, luminous, incandescent, shining. The same adjectives apply to the lady herself, whose artistry and integrity literally seem to brighten whatever she sings. The joy Mattila takes in the act of singing is infectious and her capacity for spontaneity boundless, but make no mistake: a Mattila performance is constructed with unyielding rigor and discipline. Truth is everything to her, and truth is never achieved casually or carelessly.
When Mattila takes on a great role, she makes the most of the opportunities it offers her. For an artist of her ingenuity, those opportunities do not stop with a character's "big moments," although Mattila delivers those with splendid flair. She has the ability to craft a living person by finding small moments that would escape the notice of a lesser artist. It is what makes her performances so unforgettable. First-class Leonores in Fidelio are rightly judged by their ability to scale the punishing emotional and vocal heights of Act I's "Abscheulicher!" and the exquisite recognition scene with Florestan in Act II. Without question, Mattila knocked those items out of the park in Jürgen Flimm's unorthodox staging of Fidelio in 2000, establishing her place in the Metropolitan Opera's long line of distinguished Fidelio heroines. But the singular, magnificent completeness of Mattila's Leonore was built on scrupulously observed details — her boyish walk, her hungry bite into a banana, her final look at Marzelline when she realized that the girl's heart had been broken by her impersonation of the youth Fidelio. For once, Leonore's high-stakes disguise was completely convincing: Mattila was a believable young man, as well as a believable married woman.
Each of Mattila's performances has given me moments to treasure — the slow turn of Elsa's head to look at Lohengrin; the wide grin of glee as Eva crowned Hans Sachs; the set of Lisa's shoulders when she greeted Gherman for the final time; the quick, feverish flash of terror in Chrysothemis's eyes as she realized the enormity of Elektra's anger. At the close of Act II in a 2003 performance of Jenu°fa in Paris, Mattila's air of humility and forgiveness was so believable — and the acoustics of the Châtelet so perfect — that I could actually hear the sound of weeping in the audience as Jenu°fa accepted the love of the man who had disfigured her. I was shocked to learn a few days later, when I interviewed Mattila for OPERA NEWS, that the Châtelet production, a minimalist staging by Stéphane Braunschweig, was not a favorite of the soprano's: to my eye, her sympathy with it had seemed complete. Mattila regards her commitment to a production and its director's concept as a thing of honor and believes that any artist does his or her best work as a member of a team. "Artists can't have prejudices," she told me. "You are a failed performer if you have prejudices. You must be able, sometimes, to do things you don't like. That's your challenge. That's what we get paid for."
By her own reckoning, Mattila came into her prime as a singer and actor in the 1990s, at a time when opera companies were increasing their commitment to record performances on video — a happy circumstance for those of us determined to savor Mattila's artistry whenever we can. Forced to choose a favorite Mattila performance on video, I'd grab Luc Bondy's revelatory 1996 staging of Don Carlos, in which Mattila is miraculous. Don Carlos's Act III auto-da-fé scene does not usually belong to its Elisabeth, but Mattila, dressed in a blood-red gown that offers full exposure of her superb shoulders, is as much at the center of this scene as any of the other principals onstage: she listens and watches with her entire body, fully present in the political and familial dramas unfolding before her.
In 2009, Mattila sang seven performances of Tatiana in a Met revival of Robert Carsen's beautiful staging of Eugene Onegin. I saw the show four times, and Mattila was glorious every night. What was the Onegin moment that took my breath away? It was another Mattila surprise — Tatiana's non-singing entrance in Act III. As Prince Gremin talked about his young wife, Mattila moved with elegance and dignity among the guests in her husband's ballroom. She greeted each person differently, letting us know with a subtle nod of the head or a gracious smile just who at the ball was an old friend and who was a stranger. She never tried to steal focus — her every gesture was bound to the musical rhythm of what Gremin was singing — but with masterful economy, Mattila let us see how the shy young girl had grown into a princess. It was magic, and it is my all-time-favorite Mattila moment — so far.
F. PAUL DRISCOLL