Karita Mattila in Met’s Salome: Is Opera All About Singing?

I know that Met’s new season of HD broadcasts began on October 11th with Strauss’ Salome, but I was only able to see it yesterday when it was shown again around the country 11 days later – last year the encore performances were a day later, so I’m not sure why the change – and I have to say that I left the movie theater in a kind of puzzlement that is not easy to explain. Salome is a great opera, beautiful music and challenging for all the singers, especially the soprano. I think Mattila did a great job singing the role of Salome, but, for goodness sake, I hope that she never does this opera again – I hesistate to be rude (probably for the first time in my life) but it was a horrible horrible production with a horrible horrible acting by Mattila who did not seem to get what the opera is about at all. Not that Mattila is a great actor anyway – last season’s Manon Lescaut she did such a horrible job that in the end I was glad the heroine finally died. But in Manon Lescaut she was covered in clothing and the production was such that camera was constantly wandering around showing other singers and situations.

In Salome Mattila looked old and senile, constantly adjusting her dress in the first pre-dance sequence – with camera concentrated on her face most of the time, it was a horrible sight of a 50 or so year old soprano trying to look like a naive yet seductive teenager – with all the awkward grimaces, disgusting old-person flesh hanging out here and there, constricted movements of someone who doesn’t know what to do next, strange poses and no emotional interaction with the character whatsoever. I had to close my eyes most of the time in order to enjoy the voice and the music, but that’s like listening to the CD and I wanted to see the opera.

Alex Ross described the same production from 4 years ago with such engagement that I was led to believe that this will be a great experience, well, it was not:

There is physical nakedness, and there is emotional nakedness. Mattila gives us the first at the end of the dance, and she gives us the second at the end of the opera, when, after a devouring kiss and a scary spell of heavy breathing, she hangs her head backward over the lip of the stage and delivers the final part of her monologue: “Ah, I have kissed your mouth, Jochanaan.” No one will soon forget the desperation in her tone and on her face—the desperation of one who has performed the most extreme act and is still trapped in an agony of dissatisfaction. To this Salome, Herod’s closing words—“Kill that woman!”—may sound merciful.

Not this time, and I have a suspicion that she did not four years ago either – opera folks are so used to bad acting, if a singer even remotely attempts to act, they are ecstatic – so sad. Of course, when expectations are so low, anything is better than absolute nothing, plus there’s always the singing to save the day…

LA Times was looking for something different:

Karita Mattila. Naked. Those three words have been on the mind of practically every New York opera fan for the last month as the Finnish soprano strips bare in the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of “Salome” by Richard Strauss.

On Saturday, the company will broadcast the opera live in HD to movie theaters around the country. While those at the Met will see Mattila go full frontal during the Dance of the Seven Veils, those of us at the movies will see something, well, much more restrained.

“You’ll see the camera pan away from her as she does the dance,” a Met spokesman told Culture Monster. “Either it will pan discreetly away to the audience, or it will do a close-up of her face.”

You know what? If I saw Mattila naked in yesterday’s broadcast, I would sue the Met for emotional distress – it would have been like seeing your grandmother attempt a striptease on your Viagra-infused grandfather – psychological damage forever… Mattila attempted to dance with such awfully uncoordinated moves that one wonders why the opera was not over with “Kill that woman!” right after she was done dancing. Please, stick with your singing, if you cannot act or dance, talk to the production director and make sure your part is crafted in a way as to support your good qualities and minimize your bad qualities. But am I simply being mean here?

“It’s hard to imagine how anyone could quibble with any aspect of Karita Mattila’s performance in the title role of Strauss’s Salome,” wrote The New York Times in 2004. “Given the physical and emotional toll of her portrayal, that she could also sing this daunting role with such gleaming power, eerie expressivity and, most remarkably of all, beguiling lyricism was stunning.”

She is receiving similarly glowing reviews this time around. Clive Barnes of The New York Post described her performance as “stunningly sensuous. Her singing and characterization curve together like the branches of a vine – her seductive, always suave tones setting up Salome’s childlike, random viciousness.” The legendary critic declared her the “Salome for this day and age.”

Really? “Stunningly sensuous”? Clive Barnes? Is this the same Clive Barnes who was born in 1927 and finds Mattila’s performance “seductive”? No offense, old timer, but I’m sure it was pretty sexy for someone who is 81 years old, but, please, they call you “legendary” not simply because you’re really really old, get real.

Ok, I’m not saying that acting and production and all that non-singing stuff is more important than singing, but it has to be there otherwise why even bother? Yes, I know some are complaining that new opera stars are all pretty and no voice, but then opera is a theater and those who are not able to act might do recordings or concerts but not opera – voice isn’t everything, especially in the new age of high-definition broadcasts.

Again, I realize I’m seemingly alone in my reaction:

Karita Mattila’s Salome is a spoiled child who gradually slips into insanity. In the end you feel sorry for this sick girl, who has been raving around the sets increasingly drunk and desperate for attention. The childlike naivity of the character fits Karita Mattila´s general mix of naive and shy stage appearance uncannily well, probably a major contributing factor to her success. I cannot remember having seen such a tour de force performance with such committed acting. And such emotional nakedness on stage. Vocally, she is more than up to it as well – hitting all the notes on pitch and in the most impossible physical positions.

“Spoiled child”? “Such committed acting”? Rent some DVDs, my friend, and give Matilla’s acting a look – she always seems to be be playing the same person. In Salome she is playing a grumpy old maid who wants to be admired and loved, not a “spoiled child” – her “acting” vis-a-vis the prophet and her consequent madness are so unconvincing, I can do a better job right now by simply opening the door of my office and stating firmly to the people outside in a calm and monotonous matter: “I am mad, I tell you, I am made indeed.”

4 thoughts on “Karita Mattila in Met’s Salome: Is Opera All About Singing?

  1. I was reassured to read your reaction: it accords perfectly with mine. If the opera were about a 50 year old woman trying desperately to be – or rather, who wilfully believes herself to be – a beautiful 16 year old vamp, I would have found the performance quite fascinating. But that isn’t the opera.
    As it is, I couldn’t get past that ungainly stage presence, the graceless movements and above all the grotesque self-satisfaction of a mature woman cruelly dressed and directed without tact or sympathy. And yet, and yet – involuntarily, the performance ulimately came to embody the voluptuous ghastliness of the life of that court. I wish I believed that achievement had been intentional and brave.

  2. In fact, it was a 50 year old woman trying to act like a 16 year old, and you’re right, if this angle was intentional, it would have been a great interpretation, but it’s pretty clear that Mattila’s performance was not ironic by any means. It’s sad because Salome is such a great musical work – set was pretty ugly too, too much German kitsch for my taste. I would buy a recording of it though, singing was great…

  3. Contrary to what has been previously said on this site, I found Karita’s Dance of the Seven Veils to be the ultimate in sexiness. I didn’t expect her to be a sixteen year old and took her on her own terms. If nothing else, this proves that sexiness can be irrelevant to age. Brava!

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