Star Light, Star Bright

Classic Arts Features   Star Light, Star Bright
Karita Mattila, who sings the title role in Puccini's Manon Lescaut at Houston Grand Opera through February 11, is more than a star: she's a supernova. Louise T. Guinther explains.

"Star quality" can be defined in many ways. In the case of soprano Karita Mattila, it takes on an almost literal ring. Words like "radiance," "luminescence," and "incandescence" crop up so often in the critical vocabulary when discussing her performances that one begins to imagine her as a modern-day Ariadne, transformed into a celestial body by the gods. A fanciful image, perhaps, but no less apt for its extravagance, for Mattila's assumptions seem to shed such new light on character, music, and style that she illuminates a whole art form anew.

The imagery of brightness applies equally to her voice and to her presence. The sound is an alluringly paradoxical one, combining a core of silvery coolness with an aura of warmth that glows like a halo, evoking moon and stars at once. Her onstage manner likewise mingles girlish innocence and reserve with the white-hot intensity of a passionate woman. It is an ideal combination for the galaxy of naïve yet febrile characters that she has brought to life, from Eva in Die Meistersinger, through the repressed heroines of Janácek's Jen°ufa and Katya Kabanova to her latest assignment, Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

This is not to suggest that there is anything one-dimensional about Mattila's career. She has put those essential qualities of vulnerability and refulgence to work in the service of a wide range of musical and dramatic styles, custom-fitting her iridescent personality to the stately, expansive vocal lines and unearthly purity of Wagner's Elsa, the wild coloratura coruscations and untamed fury of Mozart's Elvira, the erotic decadence of Strauss's Salome and the soaring melodies and transcendent poise of the same composer's Arabella.

For Manon, the ever-versatile Mattila has had to find yet another new approach without sacrificing the unmistakable luster that makes her instantly recognizable by sound alone. "I'm in love with this part. I did it first in Tampere in '99, and the theater was much smaller‹and this is of course luxury, because with that experience I got the part in my body. But during these six years, I've done so many different kinds of roles that I felt when I was preparing it like I was studying a new part, a whole new style. I find Puccini so rich! It has been fascinating to rediscover my top notes‹to relearn the way to do it."

Getting reacquainted with her uppermost register was not the only challenge. "My pianist, Martin Katz, said something I think is very true. You can't do Puccini without this essential variety of color, without understanding how you build up the phrases and find these colors in your voice. I can only speak on behalf of myself, but I don't think I could have understood these things any earlier in my career. This is the eternal dilemma of these opera characters‹they are so young, yet how can one understand, as an artist, when one hasn't experienced much in life? If I had done Manon earlier, I wouldn't have understood what it means to change the color even within a phrase, and that when the composer marks a tempo change, there has to be some emotional preparation to make it believable‹otherwise it sounds so mechanical, as if you were demonstrating, 'Ha! I notice the composer has written here accelerando and now ritenuto, and I did it like a good musician would do.' That's boring! This is theater music."

Mattila grew up on a farm in the Finnish countryside. Music was a constant pastime for her and her parents, who encouraged her to develop her talent. She studied at the Sibelius Academy, where her natural fascination with drama was nurtured by unusually rigorous instruction in the art of theater, alongside her vocal training. "Since my student times, my interpretation teachers left inside me the seed, the curiosity to find out more." Her talent was obvious from the start, and before long she was winning prizes in such prestigious competitions as Lappeenranta (1981) and Cardiff Singer of the World (1983). Since then, she has been rapturously received at most of the world's great opera houses in a repertory that defies boundaries. She made headlines at the Met for a brief moment of full frontal nudity in Salome, but her soul-baring performances as Leonore in Fidelio and Elisabetta in Don Carlos have been no less revelatory.

Manon, a character who runs the gamut from youthful naïveté through careless abandon to remorse and ultimate despair, seems tailor-made for an artist of Mattila's range and depth. "It's a wonderful story, although it's completely crazy‹I mean, in the sense of how to combine what a different character she is in the different acts‹but I let the director worry about that."

The soprano pulls no punches when she is not happy with a production, but this time around, she has no reservations about her stage director, Olivier Tambosi. "He's absolutely somebody you can lean on and you can trust. He knows the piece, he knows everybody's lines by heart, he doesn't lose his temper, he's well prepared. He loves singers‹actually, that should come first. He loves theater, he loves opera, he loves singers and he loves to make it work." She is particularly pleased that Tambosi's vision of Manon Lescaut has not strayed far from the creator's original intentions.

"For this piece, I was glad and grateful that it was approached in quite a classical, traditional way, because it helps in understanding Manon, who I think is very much a child of her time. And it doesn't hurt that you have a beautiful production, because Manon is very simple and straightforward in her approach to the things around her. She craves life, she craves beauty. She has learned early on, 'You need money, for money you need a man, and when you please him you will be happy‹you'll get to that beauty you love, something to feed your soul.' I feel for this character, because so often she's treated in such a judgmental, prejudicial way."

For all her apparent abandon onstage, Mattila insists that the impression of total immersion must remain a carefully constructed illusion. "I've read a lot of books by actors. My big guru is Uta Hagen and she says wonderful things in her two books, Respect for Acting and Challenge for an Actor. She says never to compare yourself to your last performance and get stuck in thinking how to do it as well as the last time. She is talking about freshness‹about starting to find yourself in the part. She makes this wonderful distinction. Some people talk about needing to lose yourself in the part, but it makes such sense that you don't lose yourself to anything, because you don't have anything else but yourself to build on. The thing is to build up a character in rehearsal, with the background information, with the music, with your understanding, and then to make it your own. Some people think there is something mysterious. There is nothing mysterious. Physically, emotionally, you are an instrument, using your own complete abilities to the fullest. And the more you prepare, the more organically it happens."

In her haste to squeeze a host of thoughts and ideas into the narrow time frame of our interview, she has been talking a mile a minute, yet her English is so idiomatic and eloquent that one is surprised, when she stops to double-check the meaning of a word, to recall that it is not her native tongue. "I love to talk about my work," she remarks, "because I'm so blessed to be in this profession. I went through a time when I wasn't so sure I felt that this really matters. But now I've found the clarity of why I'm doing this, my true motivation‹what makes you keep going even when it's not successful or you temporarily get lost. I try not to take myself too seriously, because then I would be in trouble, but I love the seriousness of this work. And the best feedback, the best reward, comes from the reactions of the audience. I'm so gratified by it. I feel I'm on the right path, because the less audience flattery I think about, the more encouragement I get. It just shows that it's so much deeper and so much more meaningful than me."

Louise T. Guinther writes frequently about the arts.

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