Vocalist of the Year:
Peter Mattei

By Heidi Waleson

The lyric beauty of his voice is just the beginning: He never allows us to forget what his characters are feeling. Berg’s Wozzeck, his tenth Metropolitan Opera role, will test the Swedish baritone’s skill at finding beauty while delving into the dark side.

2020 Muscial America Vocalist of the Year:<br>Peter Mattei
© Marty Sohl/Met Opera.

Peter Mattei in the title role of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, February 2015.

The brilliance of the 2013 François Girard production of Wagner’s Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera had many facets: the tenor Jonas Kaufmann singing the title role for the first time, the river of blood, the huddled mass of women excluded from the dying land of the Grail knights, to name just a few. But the evening’s most arresting element was Peter Mattei’s riveting portrayal of Amfortas. Leaning heavily on two men throughout the evening, he seemed, with every halting, excruciating step, to be living the agony of the knights’ wounded leader. This physical deterioration personified the crisis of the knights, while Amfortas’s inner torment and fierce despair bled out through the colors of Mattei’s luxuriant, multihued baritone.

"Technique serves emotions"
Performances by Mattei, 54, tend to bring deeper, unexpected resonances even to characters we think we know well. His Figaro in the 2006 Met Barber of Seville was sexy and slightly dangerous in addition to being a master manipulator. As the Count in The Marriage of Figaro, he brings out the comic side of this ineffectual lord of the manor, thwarted at every turn by his wife and servants. (Mattei thinks of the Count in terms of Fawlty Towers.) And as Don Giovanni, the role that brought him to international prominence, he captures the seducer’s chameleon attributes, communicating both suave elegance and explosive violence, even as we watch him fall apart. The lyric beauty of Mattei’s voice is just the beginning: He never allows us to forget what his characters are feeling. In his view, “You have to take away technique a little bit, so the technique is serving the emotions. In one moment in Parsifal, I thought, I can sing it in the same space where you cry out loud. And when a character is in a lot of pain, if you are willing to feel those emotions, that will be reflected in the voice.”

Berg’s Wozzeck, his tenth Metropolitan Opera role, will test the Swedish baritone’s skill at finding beauty while delving into the dark side. Mattei took several months off from performing to learn this arduous part—just memorizing the pitches, and figuring out what cues he will be able to rely on in the orchestral accompaniment, was a job in itself. But can this spiky, Expressionistic score actually be beautiful? Mattei thinks it can. “The more you work with this music, the more beauty you find in it,” he says. “The first time you listen to it, it sounds horrible. When I am working at home, my family gets very stressed from this music—which they should be, because he wrote it to be very stressful and emotional, and chaotic! But there are places where I really want to SING it, where you can use all the range and colors in the voice. I try to look at it a little like an instrument—if a clarinet plays Wozzeck’s line, the clarinet’s musicality and phrasing is there. He doesn’t make it horrible. The singer has to do the same but still have the right character.”

Bel canto by osmosis
Singing was a natural part of Mattei’s childhood. His parents sang for fun at home, his Italian father introduced him to his national music, and as a youngster Mattei enjoyed singing along with a recording of a boy soprano performing Neapolitan songs, learning a bel canto style by osmosis. The Swedish educational system offers universal musical instruction in community music schools starting at age 10, and Mattei chose singing. He then studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and the University College of Opera in Stockholm; he made his debut as Nardo in La finta giardiniera at the Drottningholm Court Theater in 1990. His debut at the Royal Swedish Opera the following year was even more momentous: He sang the role of Pentheus in Daniel Börtz’s The Bacchae, helmed by the legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman; the opera was later recreated as a film, Backanterna, for Swedish television. Numerous engagements followed, including his first Don Giovannis at Gothenberg Opera, and invitations to perform in international opera houses and festivals. In 1998, his Don Giovanni in Peter Brook’s staging at the Aix-en-Provence Festival accelerated the pace of his international career. In 2002, Mattei made his Metropolitan Opera debut as the Count in Figaro, and has been a regular in the house ever since.

His early work with directors like Bergman and Brook whetted his appetite for imaginative stagings and the creation of complex characters, a path he would pursue with projects like the searing From the House of the Dead, directed by Patrice Chéreau, in which he embodied another tormented figure, the murderer Shishkov. Having to lean on those two dancers in Parsifal, he says, was a “gift” from the director, Girard. “It’s demanding to do it. But if there is an interesting idea behind it, you work on it night and day to get it right. It is something you can build on forever.”

Wozzeck is just one departure from Mozart and Wagner; Mattei has sung the title roles of Billy Budd and Eugene Onegin, among others. Wagner parts like the Rheingold Wotan, or perhaps Hans Sachs in Meistersinger, might be future possibilities. And while he has made few forays into Verdi, a long-buried dream is to sing Rigoletto, whose arias were his audition pieces when he was in his early 20s, before Mozart roles took over his life.

Keeping it fresh
A recent passion project has been Schubert’s Die Winterreise. Mattei decided not to listen to any recordings, so that each song would be completely fresh for him, and he allowed himself a lengthy period to learn and absorb the cycle and then to perform it multiple times, with pianist Lars David Nilsson, sometimes for Swedish audiences unfamiliar with the piece and the language. Mattei relished being his own conductor and director, for a change, and finding the truth of each of the songs in a new way, communicating differently as the audience changed with every performance. “It’s a little bit like life,” he says. “You think you know it, but you don’t. Every time you sing the piece, you learn something that you cannot use for the next concert, because the next one will be different.”

In a filmed performance of the cycle made for Swedish television, set in a tiny, dimly lit, bleakly empty 17th-century theater, Mattei wears a trench coat—no elaborate costume or makeup to turn him into someone else. With just his voice and his face, he takes us along on his terrible journey, finding dynamic extremes, down to a whisper, and whipsawing between emotions even in the middle of songs. Every phrase has meaning, and is connected to every other phrase. It is an impeccably calibrated, mesmerizing descent into grief, weariness, and, finally, complete loss of connection to reality. Like everything Mattei does, it is deeply human, and uses the knife edge of pain to leaven the beauty. •

Heidi Waleson is opera critic of the Wall Street Journal and the author of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2018).