18 December 2004

Kat'aish Mattila

Karita vs. Janacek

With none of the kind of ecstasy/insanity latent in the Salome score, and none of the sustained lyricism of the Jenufa two years ago, our dear Karita Mattila had to rely on her other tools to attempt to make the same devastating impression as Kat'a. It seems Janacek's experiment was to strip as much sentimentality out of such an overtly sentimental story as can be permitted; and while there are segments of Kat'a's music that freely revelled in such emotions (the underlying strings emitting a heart-tugging yearning), key moments are less sensational, and therefore demand more subtle drama out of the voice (and body), making the role an exceptionally difficult tour. In the same Met production Gabriela Benackova seemed to have flourished in the role (reading from published reports in the early 90s); then during its second incarnation in the late 90s, Catherine Malfitano brought an entirely different level of tragedy to the role. I saw Malfitano's Kat'a, and I remember being devastated for days (having sat in the front row orchestra); I suspect Mattila's interpretation lies a bit closer to Gaby's than Cathy's, and being an admitted Cathy worshipper, I came away slightly (just slightly) underwhelmed by our third Met Kat'a.

The ending five minutes is crucial in the experience of any live opera: in non-comedic works, the heroine routinely dies, the tenor laments (if he doesn't die himself), the orchestra resolves the musical puzzles, the high notes are abundant and stretched, the crowds roar for the diva. Instead, Janacek gives us an unfamiliar psychological twist, such that from when Kat'a's lover Boris shows up to her inevitable suicide, her music doesn't move much (comparing to her monologue prior to this scena). Her last lines are spare, about birds and other small things, the last high note before her river jump feels like an afterthought, and we're all left wanting more: indeed, the soprano ain't getting any easy favors from Janacek, and to pull off a satisfying resolution to the evening, the soprano must become a complete actress of small gestures. Malfitano exuded a fatal resignation, and not possessing an intrinsically attractive sound (esp. late in her career) she has learned to live on stage by singing with the body and the face. Mattila, on the other hand, relies heavily on the voice, which is such a powerful dramatic instrument (in the forte range) that, with its every undulation, her body is pushed to convulse automatically and her extremities unleashed in excessive passion. Without the forte tops, Mattila wasn't as effective, and from afar, didn't make an indelible impression in quiet moments. To me, the problem is that her soft singing, if not book-ended by those delirious forte's, passes without much poignancy.

Curtain calls are part of the performance, and Mattila during her solo bow was sufficiently moving, though again not as overtly dramatic as stage-animal Malfitano, who met the foot of the stage sprinting as the scrim rose, with a sheer white sheet of a dress, hair and body dripping in river water (wet t-shirt contest style), whereas Mattila chose to keep her black skirt on, wasn't too wet, and barely moved in place (save to pick up a bouquet of red roses). This contrast exemplifies the stark difference in their performances: Mattila needs cues from the music (and the startling magic of her crescendo'ing top) and the stage production to move. Nothing wrong with that; it's just that sometimes we want to witness the universe under the absolute control of a goddess's sheer breath every time she appears (or leaves).

Elsewhere in the opera, Janacek permits some sustained, overtly emotional, forte singing, and during these moments Mattila triumphs without peer, shadows of the Salomes all over the stage. In her Act I monologue for Varvara, the vocal display was astounding. I find Mattila's vocal affects to be similar to Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson's: the voice gives the impression that it has a limit in terms of pitch and volume, but then, as the music builds further, breaks above and beyond physical boundaries, leaving us all breathless and nearly deaf. In Act II, when contemplating the repercussions of the temptress key, Mattila was once again propelled to unspeakable heights of sensuality and desire.

Still, Mattila is god. Long-story-short: you bet I'm going back for more. Next time I'll maybe get to my impressions of the other singers, the debuting conductor, and other things, but certainly premiere night was all about Mattila's first emergence on the Met stage since her unfathomable Salomes of last season, so that's that.