Mattila brings an operatic dimension to song recital at Ravinia

Tue Aug 11, 2015 at 11:41 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Soprano Karita Mattila performed a recital Monday night at Ravinia's Martin Theatre.
Soprano Karita Mattila performed a recital Monday night at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre.

The audience was clearly happy to see Karita Mattila Monday night in her first appearance at the Ravinia Festival since 2002. They greeted the Finnish soprano’s entrance at the Martin Theatre with a solid minute of sustained applause before she began her solo recital of songs by Brahms, Duparc, Sibelius, Aulis Sallinen, and Richard Strauss.

In her wry commentary on the bleakness of many of the Finnish songs she performed, Mattila remarked that the Finnish people find it energizing to be “a little bit miserable.”  This was an apt gloss on her performances: the grittier the song, the more effective her interpretation.

Mattila’s singing was rarely conventionally pretty. When she leapt into fortissimo high notes, her voice blared. And even many softer passages had rough edges. In her renditions of  Brahms’ “Meine Liebe ist grün” and Strauss’ “Der Stern,” there was a tonal steeliness at odds with the character of the music.

But in the more dramatic selections that made up the majority of the program, Mattila’s unflagging intensity and emotional generosity were absolutely gripping. Her repeated cries of “Adonis! Adonis!” in Strauss’ “Frühlingsfeier” seemed to swallow up the hall.

She was at her best in Sallinen’s Neljä laulua unesta (Four Dream Songs), three of which are adaptations from his opera, Ratsumies (The Horseman). True to their title, these songs build hypnotic phrases into nightmarish climaxes. Her performances were expertly paced with an an intelligent narrative arc, dreamy without sacrificing expressive clarity.

Mattila sang with a great commitment to character, painting detailed psychological portraits. Yet, perhaps befitting her operatic experience, she relied more on stage presence and highly personalized body language than nuances of vocal color. If one closed one’s eyes while listening or merely read along with the translations rather than watching Mattila, one would miss the greater part of the interpretation.

The haughtiness of the female lover in Brahms’ “Vergebliches Ständchen,” the inner turmoil of the daughter in Sibelius’ “Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote” (The Girl Returned from Meeting Her Lover), and the painting of many other dramatic character details were communicated through averted glances, heaving shoulders, and nervous adjustments of her shawl. In Mattila’s performances, art song was as much a stage medium as opera.

In all of these songs, pianist Bryan Wagorn proved an excellent accompanist. In cases where unobtrusive support was what was called for (as in much of the Brahms), Wagorn was appropriately restrained. But he was perfectly capable of operating as equal to Mattila when the music required it, and two of the finest performances of the evening were true partnerships between the two musicians.

In “Våren flyktar hastigt” (Spring Flees Fast)—one of Sibelius’ rare forays into humorous territory—Wagorn’s playful rendition of the piano part’s capricious turns of phrase balanced nicely with Mattila’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the song’s youthful protagonist. The evening’s other tour de force was Duparc’s “Au pays où se fait la guerre.” Mattila built the setting, in which a woman mistakenly believes she hears her lover’s footsteps on the stairs, with mounting anticipation to a shattering conclusion.

The enthusiastic reaction of the audience brought the singer back out for two encores. The first was a carefully shaped performance of Strauss’ “Zueignung.” The soprano ended the evening with a stirring rendition of another Finnish setting, Oskar Merikanto’s “Kun päiva paistaa” (When the Day Shines).

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