OUSSAMA ZAHR salutes the distinguished achievement of the OPERA NEWS Awards winner.
Photographed by Johan Elbers as Figaro in the Metropolitan Opera production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, 2006
© Johan Elbers 2012
Peter Mattei's ability to inhabit a range of characters — from the frothiest comedy to the blackest tragedy — makes him an artist of the highest caliber. Of course, his luxuriant baritone on its own is a thing of beauty — handsome, generously produced, technically polished, powerful but somehow soft around the edges. With an instrument like that, it's no surprise that he is a Mozartean of choice at some of the world's most important houses. But Mattei is an actor, too, with a physical technique that disappears into the idiom of a given show: he can be a loose-limbed, bounding Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, a stalking, aristocratic Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro or a smooth, louche Eugene Onegin. In an age when charisma is often synonymous with sex appeal, Mattei commands attention without being cheap. He also reminds us that the first requirement for an international career is — or at least should be — an international-class voice.
Even with these gifts, it takes a special kind of singer to stop the show in a soul-wracking, gut-twisting opera about life in a prison camp. But that is exactly what Mattei did in Janácˇek's From the House of the Dead at the Metropolitan Opera in 2009. Janácˇek's opera offers up one-hundred intermission-less minutes of nearly unremitting misery, with the intent of showing viewers that even at the bleakest edge of humanity it is possible to find a spark of life. Some twenty minutes from the opera's conclusion, Mattei emerged as the menaced Shishkov, not to lift us out of the darkness but to show us that it was possible to go even further into it. In long, confessional paragraphs, he unpacked torments and gave the screw a final turn. It was emotionally and physically exhausting to watch, so one can only imagine what it was like to sing, but Mattei's voice never lost its glinting beauty and firmness of line. When he came out for his curtain call,
he was met with the cathartic applause of a genuinely moved audience.
Born and raised in Sweden, Mattei studied at the Royal Academy of Music and at the University College of Opera in Stockholm. He made his professional debut in 1990 as Nardo in Mozart's early work La Finta Giardiniera at the historic Drottningholm Court Theatre. Eight years later, Mozart marked another milestone for Mattei, when he arrived on the international scene as the suave lothario in Peter Brook's staging of Don Giovanni at Aix-en-Provence.
The DVD recording of the 2002 revival of Brook's staging handily explains why many consider Mattei to be one of the best Don Giovannis in the world. With his eminently lyrical singing, he emerges as the opera's indisputable center, a role that baritones in this particular work all too often cede to their leading ladies with their multipartite arias. The intimate Théâtre de L'Archevêché lets Mattei sing with ravishingly plush tone and finely spun phrasing in what would be throwaway moments in a larger auditorium, such as the first scene's trio for low male voices. Too many singers emphasize Giovanni's brutish force of will and none of his charm, but with his velvety timbre, Mattei turns Giovanni's seductive power into music.
Mattei has gone on to prove himself uniquely suited to
singing Mozart and Rossini in the world's largest opera houses. His sound is full and poised, nimble and resonant, and it can fill a four-thousand-seat auditorium without sounding forced.
His voice has the dark color and round shape that today's audiences love, combined with lightness and buoyancy in the way it is projected. At the end of a high phrase, when so many other singers' voices tense as they run out of breath, Mattei seems to tap into additional reserves, capping the line with gorgeous bloom. How many Don Giovannis today can avoid getting swamped by the furious strings of the champagne aria and also sing an expansive serenade that emerges on a pillow of sound? How many barbers can squeeze so much fruity tone into "Largo al factotum"?
With his roomy lyric baritone, Mattei could have cornered the market on the light comic repertoire for years, if not decades, but he has already embarked in new directions. Indeed, his Shishkov in From the House of the Dead has shown his potential for almost boundless exploration. In the video of Salzburg's 2007 Eugene Onegin, his egotistical Onegin refuses Tatiana's affections in warmly alluring tones, clearly pleased with the idea that she continues to find him attractive even as he is lecturing and humiliating her. His latest recital CD, Great Baritone Arias (Bis), presents a delectable sampling of roles he has yet to do in the U.S.: Wolfram, Rodrigo and Valentin may inhabit different stylistic worlds, but they are all devoted souls, and Mattei's committed sense of line and color gives vibrant life to their pleas. It's a splendid calling card from a singer who has only begun to unpack his bag of tricks.