Karita Mattila recital

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris – June 7 2005

Songs by Puccini, Toivo Kuula, Mahler and Strauss. With Malcolm Martineau, Piano.

Some people are incorrigible. The same friend who, having claimed Waltraut Meuer’s voice was in ruins, was forced to repent on hearing her as Isolde, this time claimed that to him, Karita Mattila’s phrasing sounded like “a trunk being dragged laboriously down stairs.”

Of course, after the Meier affair, I didn’t give much credence to this, but it was still in the back of my mind at the start of Karita Mattila’s Paris recital and, as the first notes struck up, I admit I had a minute or two of apprehension. After numerous Jenufas and Salomes, the voice is now startlingly big, especially in recital, and as this sledgehammer came down on Puccini’s tender nuts, it sounded for a while as if it was too big, becoming unwieldy and hard to keep under control. But by the second song, things were more reassuring: the problem was more in the nature of the songs – and, though I’d be wary of clichés about “Nordic” versus “Latin” voices, Mattila has none of the easy, comfy morbidezza that might make these songs sound more natural.

Natural isn’t really the word for singing of this kind. Searching round for a suitable commonplace, I finally hit on “consummate artistry.” Mattila is the antithesis of a Pavarotti: of that torrent of seemingly untutored sound pouring from an open throat (though one French person once commented that hearing Pavarotti was like witnessing “a toreador tearing open his flies on stage”). The whole recital was carefully planned: the programme, the two first-rate dresses – a figure-hugging black sheath in the first half, white chiffon folds and a glittering, geometric top in the second – and the phrasing of each song.

Once we got into the more suitable territory of Kuula (an interesting composer who died at 35 in the Finnish civil war, so the programme notes told us), Mahler and Strauss, Matilla pieced together a similarly glittering, geometric edifice of conscious artistry, with a vast dynamic range under perfect control, obviously long thought-out interpretation of the texts, genuine feeling (I may be heartless and tearless, but at least one of the Kuula songs brought a tear to Mattila’s eye) and impeccable intonation.

Conscious artistry, but perfectly well-judged, not self-conscious or ponderous or mannered or – God forbid - bluesy (no names, please). It struck me, more even than during Salome or Jenufa, that I was hearing one of the world’s finest sopranos, at the height of her powers.I understood what my over-critical firend was getting at: this was deliberate art, not a natural outpouring. But the only possible real criticism might have been of the hardening of the very highest notes, and slightly pasty diction. They may have been the result of the cold which, with a certain half-ingénue, half-diva charm, Mattila only announced at the end, apologising for giving only one encore: a sad Dvorak gypsy song because, as she supposed we’d noticed, “J’aime les chansons tristes.”

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