Carrying the billing of German Romantic Arias, just five out of eight arias by three German composers are indeed sung in German. Two of the longest tracks on the disc are concert arias written and sung here in Italian. One finds Rezia's big number from Weber's Oberon most correctly sung in English here, as it was premiered in London near time of the composer's death.
One of the truly most challenging arias here gets arguably, probably its best performance on disc in thirty years - "Abscheulicher - Komm Hofnung" from Act One of Beethoven's Fidelio, and unqualified success that it is, it so auspiciously opens this recital. By way of contrast, the biggest letdown here is at least the first of Agathe's arias from Weber's Der Freischutz.
The ecstasy of Elisabeth Grummer (especially live in 1954 with Furtwangler) or more subtly lyrically flowing rapture that Tiana Lemnitz offers and the gently more heroic stance of Hilde Konetzni, all in tackling both arias (Konetzni only heard for the first) from Freischutz all come to mind while approaching the same numbers on this disc. Much in the same manner as Birgit Nilsson, especially on her complete yet pedestrian Freischutz for EMI (uncharacteristically with Gedda cast in it as well), heavy vocal production is paramount here. This is an Agathe made of tough stuff, what with her boyfriend Max flaky and out making pacts with one of the most insidious characters on the block and even in effect with Samiel, the very Evil One himself. Swallowed consonants, even on the first line of "Leise, leise", and thankfully only slightly scoopy attacks here take one back to late 1980's early Mattila that from evidence of cd's had me predicting that she had only five or six years of singing left. Davis, with his euphoniously burnished Dresden forces, are at their most doughy, sleepy in accompanying Mattila here, and become so still midway through the recitative before "Leise, leise", to bring to mind similar in the slowest interpretations available of Mahler's "Abscheid." Things gratefully pick up for the faster closing stanzas. It is all up to at least this point a little too unvaried expressively, both within and between the aria's ardently lyrical refrains and inculcated recitatives. Mattila keeps the lyric line, at least as well preserved for Agathe's Cavatina that follows, courageously taking long phrases in it in one breath, yet the occasional consonant swallowing still indicates thick production, thus compromising the radiant charm of this number as well. For the model mature Agathe for Mattila to seek out, look to Ljuba Welitsch's slightly witchy, flavorful interpretation of "Leise, leise" on an EMI recital disc.
"Ocean, thou mighty monster" from Oberon presents a more open flood of lyricism and more apt heroic response to its text than the two above numbers. One neither gets the openly beguiling, enterprising sense of adventure that Margerethe Teschemacher gives it, seventy years ago and at least as lyric and secure as Mattila, nor the fearless valor of Birgit Nilsson, as especially from her 1970 complete DGG set with Kubelik, but that is being churlish. This is indeed a fine piece of singing, with ringing high B-Flats, a reflective introspection for quieter moments, yet that encourages a retiring response from Davis at certain moments too. A consistent engagement with the text across a rising, ebbing flood of sound over a secure range is ever present here. The refrain for Euryanthe slaying the serpent attacking Adolar while singing above the fray - fortitude that requires three ladies in Magic Flute - from Mattila equals in spirit and bright color the ringing and orchestrally beautifully supported conclusion of "Ocean."
"So bin ich nun verlassen" - Euryanthe's expectation of rejection by her maliciously deceived knight lover and hero, Adolar - brings to the fore the emotional range one often senses from Mattila, yet when set against so high a standard as Maria Reining in top form (in live late 1940's broadcast of the opera that cuts the preceding refrain), a bit contained. Contrast of tonal, emotional color here, however, is quite plentiful, especially in highlighting a gradual awakening of hope for the heroine, and even to include the indulgence of a diphthong or two to get the message all the way across at the close of two phrases. Mattila, however, ends the aria by singing its last brief phrase strictly in time, almost matter-of-fact, instead of providing an expected authoritatively, steadfastly calm ending to it.
For the big aria from Beethoven's Fidelio, one sacrifices maybe a little verbal and blazing fury, as one gets completely to the fore with Dresden forces again from Gwyneth Jones on her complete 1969 set with Bohm, in exchange for perfect vocal steadiness. And yet, unlike with Nilsson, all three times I've found that Nilsson recorded it including live with Erich Kleiber, this is no power lunch - as vocally impressive as that is, running probably a little afoul of Beethoven's aesthetic ideals. Beethoven perhaps composed it as awkwardly as he did for the purpose of making sure to have brought out the true character of the piece and of his heroine's plight. Mattila's Leonore is at once steadfastly, nobly ardent and beseeching, vulnerably feminine, and eschewing the mildly expressionistic extremes (to match Jurgen Flimm staging) to which she takes the same aria on the very fine, exciting Met dvd of the complete opera. For that reason and in a perfect world, her optimum interpretation of the aria is here. Note how Mattila gently wraps her voice around the low stem of a slowly ascending arpeggio without engaging chest voice at all, having just come off reprise of the powerfully inciting lines of "Ich folg' dem", "Ich wankte nicht", delivered quite forcefully here. One has to recapture the high echelons set by such artists as Frida Leider, Kirsten Flagstad, and Hilde Konetzni to find superior artistry for any part of Fidelio; such is high praise indeed.
One concert aria here, practically modeled after the other, both dealing with forlorn victims of spurned or in current status unrequited love, as was garden variety for the time, shares billing with the other. The less imaginative of the two, a little too repetitive for its faster second half is "Infelice" (second version) by Mendelssohn. Diction, apart from a few swallowed consonants, no stranger to any language, is very fine. Here is a heroine just about equally quixotic in mood as Beethoven's equally figurative one. For slight lack of imagination, Mattila misses more opportunities here than she does for "Ah! perfido", and likewise, Davis's support here is stodgier than for the Beethoven as well. Edda Moser, on Berlin Classics, inculcates a telling variety of shifts in tone color and emotions, to help sustain interest in the piece to its final conclusion. Mattila takes us down a more streamlined path through its second half.
The coolness, but also soft femininity to Mattila's approach to this music reminds one a little of the 1950's recording of "Ah perfido" by almost legendary American soprano Eileen Farrell, at least as much as Mattila's altogether very successful "Ah perfido" here. The Beethoven aria marks supple transition for Mattila part of the way to being a convincing lyric spinto, from the more hausfrau kopfstimme employed and expected elsewhere here, but without, i.e. ersatz-Callas Cheryl Studer, beating up on the voice to achieve incisively dramatic accents. Nilsson similarly scales her voice down to silky thread through so much lyric passagework and equally supple transition between registers, for an aria (on EMI recital at least) that after first glance at least, she unexpectedly and so warmly makes much more her own than the great aria from Fidelio. Mattila, of a little humbler vocal estate, aspires to and achieves the full measure of both.
Text, translations are in fine print, light caramel over white, only useful for someone of the perfect 20/20 eyesight of younger than twenty-three to be able to read without expansion to considerably larger and to different color scheme, or without using powerful reading glasses.