The Finnish soprano, noted for her dramatic intensity as well as her luminous voice, is returning to the Metropolitan Opera as Mme. de Croissy, the First Prioress, in Francis Poulenc's 20th-century masterpiece, "Dialogues of the Carmelites." The opera is adapted from a play that is loosely based on the true story of a group of Carmelite nuns who were guillotined during the French Revolution.
The revival of the classic John Dexter production opens Friday for three performances, the last of which, on Saturday afternoon, May 11, will be broadcast live in HD to movie theaters worldwide. Mattila's character appears in just two scenes early in the opera, but the grim realism of her death from cancer can leave an impression that lingers until the tragic conclusion. One of the challenges, she said, is to convince the audience that she's writhing in agony as she sings.
"It's tough because you have to stay in bed and make it work," Mattila said in an interview after a rehearsal last month. "But it helps to be fit, so you can find uncomfortable-looking positions for an ill person and still sing it."
Fitness has never been an issue for Mattila, who at 58 retains the willowy figure that helped make her portrayal of Strauss' "Salome" — which included a flash of full frontal nudity — a sensation at the Met in 2004.
That was perhaps the high point of a long Met career that began in 1990 and has taken her through more than a dozen leading roles totaling nearly 150 performances in operas by Mozart, Wagner and Janacek, among others.
Now, at an age when many sopranos think about retiring, Mattila is thinking instead about all the new roles she's eager to take on. Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, said the company was looking to find new assignments for her, "since Karita has been such a major part of recent Met vocal history and still has so much to offer."
She said she had never seen "Dialogues" before, "and I just thought it would be quite an adventure." As she studied the part, she became fascinated by the character of Mme. De Croissy, who in her delirious final moments lashes out at God.
"She's so human facing death, she becomes so bare with all her weaknesses," Mattila said. "She has spent 30 years in that convent, and then to have such a moment at the end — it fascinates me. You can be a president, a king, whatever and you still struggle with the same issues as everybody else."
Vocally, she said, the role is tricky because although it has its share of high notes, much of it lies "lower than the usual dramatic soprano stuff," especially her first scene with Blanche, the conflicted young newcomer who is the opera's heroine. First Prioresses at the Met over the years have included the great French soprano Regine Crespin, who originated the role when the production premiered in 1977.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the Met's music director who is conducting this revival, said Mattila's portrayal "lives up to the legendary singers" who have performed it previously at the Met. "In addition to the conviction of her acting," he said, "being a soprano makes the high notes of the role even more effective."
The score calls for the First Prioress to emit moans or "death rattles" as she nears her end. These sound as if they might be punishing to the voice, but Mattila said, "We singers know how to make it work. We do all kinds of screams and things. You just have to do it with a supportive voice."
Besides the First Prioress, Mattila is debuting three other new roles this year. She recently sang the Foreign Princess in Dvorak's "Rusalka" in Paris, and this fall will appear in Berlin as Kabanicha in Janacek's "Katya Kabanova" and in Munich as Ortrud in Wagner's "Lohengrin."
Then in 2021 she'll undertake a role (she won't say where because it hasn't been announced) that's one of the toughest in the soprano repertory — the heroine of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." "I'll be 61," she said, "but as long as one is healthy, it's never too late, eh?"