Upon taking the stage in her local recital debut at the Ordway Center Wednesday night, the first impression Finnish soprano Karita Mattila made was her height. She was literally two heads taller than her accompanist, Martin Katz. And she had a voice to match her size. She is that operatic rarity—a true dramatic soprano. She is not a lyric soprano trying to fake it and push the size of her voice. She’s the real deal. And in roles from Beethoven’s Fidelio to Janacek’s Jenufa, she is also a consummate actress—most of the time, anyway.
In Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs, Op. 29, she demonstrated a disappointingly generic approach to the texts, which are witty and often racy poems by medieval monks. Diction was also a problem. Without following along with the printed texts, it would have been impossible to know what she was singing. A warmer tone would also have been more in keeping with the music, but she seemed to warm up as she went along, eventually demonstrating both the humor and ecstasy that the material requires.
She was on surer footing with a series of eight songs by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Finnish composers. Ironically, she was more effective in communicating the pathos and passion of these songs than she had been when singing in English, even with the language barrier. This was unfamiliar repertoire, by composers Toivo Kuula, Erkki Melartin, Oskar Merikanto, and Leevi Madetoja, but Mattila made me want to hear more of it. Some of the pieces clearly had their origins in native folk music, but some were in the style of German lieder and one even felt like a full-blown operatic aria.
Actual German lieder opened the second half, with Mattila singing selections from the Spanishes Liederbuch of Hugo Wolf. (A costume change into a sexy Spanish gown brought a round of applause.) Here, she adopted a more sensuous tone that effectively communicated the darker passions of these familiar songs. Some of the texts are German translations of Spanish poetry, which gives the cycle its name, but they are also quintessentially German in their execution. Her performances were rich and detailed without ever becoming mannered, and even the most rapid passagework posed no threat to her exemplary technique.
Some authentic Spanish music closed out the program. An aria from Enrique Granados’ opera, Goyescas, was again hampered by diction. Her pronunciation was hard and Nordic, unable to embrace the lilting play of the Spanish language. Her voluptuous sound offered much compensation, however, especially in the soaring, high passages. A sequence by Joaquin Turina closed out the evening. These were among the most harmonically challenging works on the program, but she threw herself into the performances with a dramatic commitment and sense of élan, even dancing her way through her final number.
Martin Katz has been collaborating with most of the major recital artists of the last few decades. (His contribution is far too great to call it merely accompanying.) His sensitivity, mastery and experience added immeasurably to the musical experience. He was virtuosic without being flashy and deeply moving throughout.