Veil Safe

Northern Soul: Mattila is blessed with the cool, crystalline tone so characteristic of Scandinavian singers.Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

It’s often said that Atrauss’s Salome is really very simple to cast—all you need for the title role is a lissome teenage girl with the voice of a hefty Wagnerian soprano. Of course, the chances of ever finding such a phenomenon are slim, but I doubt if anyone will get closer to the ideal than Karita Mattila, who is currently singing the part in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production. At 43, Mattila is in terrific shape—a brief glimpse of her body stripped bare at the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils reveals as much. She looks as fabulous in a clingy cocktail dress as she does in a Marlene Dietrich pantsuit while two attendants busily remove her fishnet stockings—with their teeth (yes, it’s an updated version of the opera).

The voice, too, is a remarkable instrument, wonderfully secure and evenly knit throughout its range, and blessed with the cool, crystalline tone so characteristic of Scandinavian singers. She does not produce a huge sound, but its precise focus ensures carrying power without any sense of forcing. Such a striking voice is surely right now at its peak, so savor the moment—these things never last long enough. Mattila is also a committed performer who digs into her roles with an interpretive intelligence and an expressive ferocity that are scarce in opera today. Even at that, she has chosen to play Salome with a welcome sense of restraint, even delicacy, portraying a manipulative girl caught up in an atmosphere of depravity that twists her mind and leads her down a dreadful path.

“Valery Gergiev drains virtually all the sensuous glitter from Strauss’s score.”

Despite the presence of this unusually effective and dedicated heroine, the production as a whole seems very chilly and detached. Santo Loquasto’s sets divide the stage in two, with Herod’s court on one side looking like a twenties Las Vegas cocktail lounge (a Salome cliché by now), and encroaching sand dunes on the other, where black angels of death perch to watch Salome’s grisly lovemaking with Jochanaan’s head. Exactly what this is supposed to signify is anyone’s guess; perhaps that a new religion is about to sweep in from the desert and overwhelm Herod’s decadent world. The message is vague in part because Jürgen Flimm’s direction is so muted and unspecific. He makes the characters seem more naughty and dysfunctional than repulsively evil or shockingly immoral, and there’s not a great deal of stage action to interrupt the conversational flow—the curtain even falls before Salome can be crushed under the soldiers’ shields. If this subdued production had been presented in place of the Met’s scandalous 1907 premiere, the opera’s first and last performance there for 27 years, New York society would never have even blinked.

The Met orchestra under Valery Gergiev’s direction reinforces the gray atmosphere. The conductor drains virtually all the sensuous glitter and color from the score, a blunt-edged reading completely at odds with the dazzling instrumental tapestry that Strauss so painstakingly wove. Although they never register vividly as characters, the other singers are all rewarding to hear, especially Allan Glassman, who substituted at the last moment as Herod and actually sings the role rather than resorting to the campy declamation most tenors deem appropriate. Albert Dohmen intones Jochanaan’s sanctimonious phrases sturdily, and Larissa Diadkova spits out Herodias’s venomous insults almost too beautifully. Yes, there is a great deal of vocal talent onstage, but only Mattila’s star turn lifts this Salome above the ordinary.

A Metropolitan Opera farewell by a favorite singer is traditionally fraught with emotion, but Luciano Pavarotti’s final Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca was a strangely muted affair. There were no speeches, no shredded programs raining from the balconies, no bouquets tossed at the stage, no limousines dragged down Broadway. Even the applause seemed restrained. Perhaps all the hoo-ha two years ago over Pavarotti’s no-show at what was rumored to be his farewell took the edge off this occasion. Perhaps some didn’t believe that even this was really the end. Perhaps his most caring fans simply didn’t want to hear the great tenor at 68, moving with effort, looking larger than ever, and his voice retaining only traces of its former glory. Perhaps everyone was so embarrassed by it all that they wanted it to be over as quickly as possible.

Having attended Pavarotti’s Met debut in 1968, and most of his big nights since, I was determined to be on hand to close the circle, no matter how grim the evening might turn out to be. Well, it was pretty sad, with Pavarotti hardly the only veteran onstage who sounded stretched. Samuel Ramey’s Scarpia was always a dull dog not worth kicking, let alone slashing to death, but now his singing is also a trial and his voice caved in midway through Act Two. Nor does Carol Vaness, shrill and wobbly much of the time, give the impression of a Tosca in her second spring. The time may have also come for Paul Plishka (the Sacristan), at the Met since 1967, and Charles Anthony (Spoletta), now 74 and celebrating his 50th season this year. Even James Levine, looking tired and unwell, doesn’t approach the podium with a light step these days.

Despite it all, Pavarotti still managed to remain the center of attention in this geriatric Tosca, and he had his moments. Everything falls apart the moment he puts any pressure on the tone, but that actually gave his two arias a measure of delicacy that they seldom had before, even if the climaxes were necessarily breathless and musically diminished. Like all recent Pavarotti performances, this one was essentially a personal appearance that had little to do with the opera at hand, as the great one gingerly made his way across the stage to find a comfortable seat where liquid refreshment always seemed readily at hand, even in prison. Surely a carefully prepared concert farewell would have been better than this farce, but that would probably have been expecting too much. A circuslike atmosphere took over Pavarotti’s career long ago, as a clownish pop persona in a big arena gradually replaced the prodigiously gifted tenor who once graced the opera stage and sang like no other Italian tenor of his generation.

Veil Safe