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Cool Northern Light

The incomparable Peter Mattei returns to the Met as Amfortas.
By Henry Stewart
Photographs by Dario Acosta
 

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Gray cotton and wool suit, Salvatore Ferragamo; black dress shirt, Dior Homme; black dress shoes, Gucci
Photography: Dario Acosta
Grooming: Affan Graber Malik
Fashion styling: Joseph Episcopo
© Dario Acosta
IN SHISKOV'S 20-MINUTE MONOLOGUE IN ACT III, MATTEI WAS AS RAW AS A YOUNG BRANDO, GIVING AN ANIMALISTIC ACCOUNT OF THE ARIA AND ITS TALE OF UXORICIDE THAT CUT THROUGH THE UNREMITTING DESPONDENCY OF THE STAGING TO GET AT DEEP AND VARIED EMOTIONS.
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As Onegin to Marina Poplavskaya’s Tatiana at the Met, 2013
© Beth Bergman
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At the Met, as Wolfram von Eschenbach in Tannhäuser, 2015
© Johan Elbers

PETER MATTEI IS EAGER TO GET HOME. It’s a stormy winter Sunday, and the world’s greatest lyric baritone has just finished his 2017 run of Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia at the Met—last night. He has a few hours now before his flight back to his native Sweden, if it takes off in this wretched weather, and he’s having brunch in a restaurant above Columbus Circle, a short walk from Lincoln Center. Waiting at home are his wife and teenage daughters, plus the Mattei family dog, “the only male with me,” he jokes between enthusiastic bites of hash brown and thick bacon. “Otherwise there are only women.” The dog is a “labradoodle!” Mattei adds, thunderously and smiling, his accent placing a charming emphasis on the “doo.”

The labradoodle’s name is Yoda, a reference to Star Wars. He was part of a whole Star Wars litter—a Leia, a Chewbacca, and so on. “We kept the name, of course, because it was a great name,” Mattei says. “I love Star Wars. It’s a little bit like Parsifal. Almost religious, in a way—a good force, a dark force. I mean, that’s the mythic part that fascinates us humans. How many people haven’t seen Star Wars? It’s the same fascination with Parsifal.”

This month, Mattei returns to the Met, to sing Amfortas in Wagner’s majestic final opera, the first revival at the house of François Girard’s stark, elemental and abstract production since its premiere in February 2013—with Mattei as Amfortas. Since his debut sixteen years ago, Mattei has sung nine roles at the Met, one of the companies at which he regularly appears, along with the Paris Opera, the Royal Swedish Opera and others. He’s not an artist of vast and varied repertoire but a specialist who likes to master a role—and it shows. When you see Mattei perform, he’s the best—not merely the best performer onstage that evening but the best you’ll likely ever see in the part. 

His characterization of Rossini’s Figaro, for example, is extraordinary, defining for his generation; his “Largo al factotum,” a well-worn mainstay of the repertoire familiar even to nonfans of opera, is so good it makes superlatives seem irrelevant. The aria is treated, in Bartlett Sher’s 2006 staging, like a rock star’s entrance, and Mattei—as seen last January, more than a decade since he first appeared in this production—relishes the rock stardom. It’s like seeing Springsteen do “Born to Run”: the performance is lived in and loved, without any suggestions of boredom or habit. Rather, it’s as if this were his very first Figaro after a lifetime of rehearsals, and he conspicuously enjoys the sneering and sarcasm. His Italian is unassailable, his tone rock-solid, his pitch impeccable, his legato like a rhythmic-gymnastics ribbon dance. He can own the part until he’s done with it, which may not be anytime soon.

“I could do the same role forever. I don’t have a strong need to do new things. New things are tough, because I have a lot of work to do. And many times, it’s not in Swedish! I mean, always, not in Swedish!” he says. “When you know something very, very well, you can become boundless and effortless and totally free. You can fuck up also!” He chuckles; his casual swearing is just a part of his good-natured charm. “But if you learn a new role very well, and have studied it the right way, it’s in your grasp. Parsifal was like that. Once I learned it [Amfortas], I found it, and I will keep it. 

“A role like Don Giovanni, which has followed me all my life, it’s a role that I feel tremendous pleasure to do over and over again. A role like Billy Budd is very hard and tricky, and to find freedom in that, you need to do it many times, to be more and more secure about the language and the rhythmical structure, and to feel that you can really push the orchestra, and they can push you. I feel very wonderful with the orchestra when I do Don Giovanni. I mean, I am running them, and they are running me. To do that with Billy Budd, you need to do it many times.”

When asked how he keeps characterizations from seeming stale, he says, “I have a very bad memory! And this is the best thing, because I have to make it new again. And that’s also a curse. Because I remember how good it was last time, but I don’t know how to do it! And this is really hard to live with. Sometimes I get more afraid of me than other singers. There’s this feeling of, ‘I cannot do it! I cannot find it!’ But then you just focus, focus, focus, focus. And it will come.”

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Rossini’s Figaro at the Met, 2011, with Maurizio Muraro (Dr. Bartolo), Javier Camarena (Almaviva), Paata Burchuladze (Don Basilio) and Isabel Leonard (Rosina)
© Beatriz Schiller
 

NOW FIFTY-TWO, MATTEI MIGHT HAVE HAD A DIFFERENT CAREER IF HE'D BEEN BORN AND RAISED ELSEWHERE. “It was easier when I was a young boy to find a school for classical training than to go and sing Elvis,” he says. “I could’ve sung Elvis, also! But how do I do that up in the north? Become an Elvis singer? I would have to have a certain way of looking. You have to be in Memphis, almost! But I was not. But there was a music school that had classical training, and I had a strong voice, and it fitted.”

He made his breakthrough in 1991, as Pentheus in Ingmar Bergman’s production of Daniel Börtz’s Bacchae, based on the Euripides, at Royal Swedish Opera. (It was filmed for television in 1993, with Mattei.) Bergman “was my first director. I didn’t know who he was,” Mattei says. Since then, he has worked with many celebrated directors—Peter Brook (Don Giovanni), Patrice Chéreau (From the House of the Dead), Michael Haneke (Don Giovanni) and Bartlett Sher (Barbiere), to name a few. But he didn’t search them out; they came looking for him. “After working with Bergman, it started well,” he says. “Then Peter Brook called, and then [I’d worked with] two masters, and it just went on like that.

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Shishkov’s monologue in From the House of the Dead
at the Met

© Johan Elbers
 

“And then you just work, and you don’t give a shit about whether they’re famous. I didn’t really know so much. And that’s also good. The moment you’re star-struck or whatever you call it, it’s harder—when you have too much respect. What we have in common, I think, is the respect for the work and the respect for the role, and that is a good respect to have—for the music, for the phrasing, for the language, everything. But not the person. Well, it’s not disrespect, either. But I think you get it.” 

What he looks for in a director now is “passion,” he says. “They also have to have this thing that, even if it gets to a very good level, they are not happy with that—they want to get further. That’s the worst thing, when a director is satisfied in the early stages, and I know that I’m just running half-speed! I can do so much more—why are you not curious? Why do you want to block it now?’”

Chéreau was surely not satisfied so easily. Mattei has never gone further dramatically than he did as the prisoner Shishkov in the late French director’s production of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, at the Met in 2009. The production had its premiere at Aix-en-Provence in 2007, with Gerd Grochowski as Shishkov. Bartlett Sher designed his Barbiere around Mattei’s energy; Mattei inserted himself into Chéreau’s production, yet it still seemed tailor-made. In Shishkov’s twenty-minute monologue in Act III, Mattei was as raw as a young Brando, giving an animalistic account of the aria and its tale of uxoricide that cut through the unremitting despondency of the staging to get at deep and varied emotions, as if he were really seeing what he recounted.

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As Amfortas to Jonas Kaufmann’s Parsifal at the Met, 2013
© Beth Bergman
 

HE COMES CLOSE TO SUCH VIVID EXPRESSION IN GIRARD'S PARSIFALWhat he loves about the production is “that it’s not artificial,” he says. “The pain is really there, you can really see—you can really follow it, from the first step he takes to the stage—that his leg is off, and he has syphilis. And until he lies down at his father’s grave, it’s physical. You can relate to it. When we worked on it, because it was so clear that this pain was there, I found a special way to sing it. So I think that it helped me to deliver the pain also through the voice, that it became also like crying instead of singing. But crying and singing are not so far away.”

His performance as Amfortas at the Met in 2013, preserved on video, revealed a consummate stage actor—projecting his feeling to the upper balconies while maintaining an honesty of expression—as well as, of course, a consummate musician. His exacting pitch is astonishing, his sheer power awesome. In his long Act I set pieces, he shows palpable anguish at his physical condition, in a strikingly blood-soaked, white-collared shirt. He is a large man, several inches taller than six feet, but his hulking frame seems sapped of strength, as if he had no more blood. He clutches at two choristers’ shoulders to keep himself upright, and you imagine they must require massages afterward, so intently does he seem to grip and push them.

“Let it do the job with you, and don’t try to control it,” he says of the role. “Through this pain come certain ways of approaching the phrases, and you can just breathe in. The brain is feeling—there’s the physicality of everything. They carry you in, and you just open yourself to it. First, when I listened to Wagner’s music, I had a problem with it. I thought it was artificial somehow. But it’s not. It’s really pain-driven, from the beginning to the last note, and when you get that right, and you have a passionate conductor who allows you to sing it and not force it—it’s really important to not force it, I think—then you have it. Parsifal is there.”

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Gray cotton and wool suit, Salvatore Ferragamo; black dress shirt, Dior Homme
© Dario Acosta
 

"WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT? PLAYS IN THE RESTAURANT AS EMPTY PLATES ARE CLEARED AWAY. "DELICIOUS," MATTEI SAYS. “What a bacon!” He doesn’t usually brunch at places like the trendy Landmarc; he told OPERA NEWS in 2014 that one of his favorite restaurants in New York City was the Flame, a greasy spoon around the corner. When I tell him I should have taken him there, he laughs. He has found a new diner, nearer to where he’s staying now, north of the Met. “It’s similar to Flame,” he says. “It’s Greek, I think.” 

Mattei loves this city, even though when he’s here for work he spends most of his time relatively isolated. “I stay in my cave, and I go for walks, and I eat something,” he says. “I like to stay without contact so much with humans”—he laughs—“so I have a hunger to communicate with people when I come onstage. It’s a little bit like if you have been sick for a week or two, when you meet somebody the first day after, you have a need to talk. If you have too much fun after your shows and in between, I find it tricky to get the right energy.” Alone in his apartment, he practices his banjo, slowly going over finger-picking patterns and listening to Earl Scruggs records, trying to figure out how he does what he does. A mere fan might just appreciate the mystery of it, but an artist such as Mattei needs to break it down and understand how it works. 

I ask Mattei about an incident the day before: his Barbiere costar Javier Camerena was heckled for skipping a high F during I Puritani. “Maybe somebody misunderstood singing—somebody who thinks music is about high jumping,” he says. “Music is about all the way to that high jump, and if a singer just tries to focus on this one note, I think you’ve lost what music is all about. It becomes athletic, and for me music is so much bigger than that. 

“Yes, you can be impressed by high notes. But to be moved? That needs something else.” spacer 



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