Seen and Heard International Opera Review
Karita Mattila's First 'Tosca' : Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Finnish National Opera, Mikko Franck (conductor) Helsinki 21.09.2006 (BK)
This long-awaited debut performance is Karita Mattila's Tosca in a very real sense. Despite less than enthusiastic premiere notices in the Helsinki and Turku press (Turku is Ms Mattila's home town) this repeat turned out to be the most subtle and sensitive portrayal of Puccini's diva heroine seen for many a long year. Mattila's Tosca isn't merely the confident opera star: she's a woman deeply in love whose jealousy is tentative, touching and understandable rather than strident and angry. She's impossible not to like.
Although early reviews accused Ms Mattila of over-acting and of singing badly by all accounts, even though she was suffering from a chest infection at the time, there was no sign of such problems last week. Yes, I have heard her in stronger voice, but the characteristic and almost unique warmth of her vocal tone was there in abundance and there were only rare occasions (when provoked into despair by Scarpia's 'evidence' of Cavaradossi's philandering for example) where the sound seemed slightly forced or pressurised. Over the years, Ms Mattila has been described as 'radiant' by many a male critic and maybe that's not wholly inappropriate. What she radiates is a rare humanity, expressed through both sound and gesture: and it's exactly right for a new kind of Tosca.
The production is another revival of the 1995 staging described (and enjoyed) by Göran Forsling in April 2005. (Here) As he said at the time, 'It is very much a traditional Tosca with realistic sets, and how else could this opera be presented? The libretto specifies the exact times and locations and it is closely based on historical fact.' And the tradition still holds up, with costumes, sets and lighting looking as rich and effective as ever and with the stylised (though wobbly) dome of St Peter’s church still in the background for the third act. 'If it ain't broke don't fix it' can be good advice sometimes.
With the exception of Juha Uusitalo's Scarpia, this revival has a new set of principals and is conducted by FNO's new Music Director, Mikko Franck. It's a very strong team indeed marred only slightly by Vladimir Kuzmenko's Cavaradossi, whose performance was decidedly less than subtle. His is a big voice right enough, but he sang so consistently loudly throughout - hardly anything less than mezzo forte - that his set pieces, especially 'Recondita armonia' were seriously hard on the ears. It's a further tribute to Ms Mattila that she managed to remain audible during any of their duets.
Juha Uusitalo's Scarpia has grown both in stature and and characterisation since his Birmingham performance with Sakari Oramo in 2004 (Here.) If his voice was powerful then (and it was) it is even stronger now, commanding a greater range of colour and subtlety across its entire compass than anyone might have thought possible. Everything is exactly in place all of the time from the shattering volume over orchestra and chorus in the 'Te Deum' scene (in which every syllable sung can be heard perfectly) through to an extraordinary controlled lightness in his middle and upper ranges. There is almost a gracefulness in this portrayal of Scarpia: the man may be evil but there are hints that he could even feel sympathy for Tosca if only circumstances were different.
Mikko Franck drew luminous sound from the orchestra, balancing high drama and lyricism perfectly at every turn. Pacing was gauged carefully and both dynamics and tempi matched the moods of the moment and the needs of the singers sensitively so that further subtlety enhanced an already subtle performance. It is clear that Mr Franck's tenure as FNO's Music Director is likely to be memorable judging by the responsiveness he drew from the chorus and other principals particularly Hannu Forsberg (Angelotti) and Jukku Romu (Sacristan) both of whom were in excellent voice.
The production is now an object lesson in why people follow opera. It has extraordinary singing and playing for the most part, in which exceptional vocal characterisation - surely the most vital element of all in opera - brings a familiar and often hackneyed story to new and vibrant life. Ms Mattila sings the role again at the Metropolitan in 2008/9 and it is to be hoped that the direction there will allow to her to repeat what she does best of all, the portrayal of a sensitive and vulnerable woman. Finns are confident that it will and are booking already to follow her to New York.
Note: An interview with Juha Uusitalo will be published in Seen and Heard soon.
Pictures © Sakari Viika