BWW Interview: Baritone PETER MATTEI, Don Giovanni and the Fear Factor

It has been a very good year for Met audiences in New York and the Mozart of Swedish baritone Peter Mattei. He helped open the season with a new production of LE NOZZE DI FIGARO, receiving a splendid reception for his performance as Count Almaviva, which brought new insights to a role that frequently gets lost in the shuffle of the large ensemble. Then came his DON GIOVANNI, which finishes up its run on Friday March 6, aptly called "commanding" by The New York Times.

The same, but different

On the surface, the roles are similar; underneath, says Mattei, they're very different. "I love to do Don Giovanni and the Count because they can be the same but they shouldn't be. They're trapped in a common heritage but they're really different characters.

"People sometimes want to see a Count who's more a symbol and can be mocked. NOZZE is a revolutionary piece and he's often seen as a caricature of the over-class and old-fashioned power. What's so beautiful in this opera from Da Ponte and Mozart is that the Count is a human being," he explains. "Nobody else in this piece is quite so tormented; in this production, at the Met, we have the time to show it, which is not always the case. He's deadly lonely in this castle but he's such a jerk that it would be hard to be his friend--yet, he is probably the one who needs your friendship more than someone more likeable, because he has changed for the worse."

One is tortured, the other not

But how does he differ from the Don? Explained Mattei, "I read about a study of hands in a Swedish newspaper. It said that if the ring finger is taller than the pointer, you're more likely to be a nicer man, a man who listens, who's more compromising; if it's the opposite, you're inflexible, more unfaithful. As I see it, Don Giovanni has very long pointers, so he's clearly not particularly nice. But the Count is a different story: on one hand, the ring finger's longer but the other hand it's the opposite. So he's tortured by the way he is. The Don is not."

What's the basic difference between the roles? "Fear is the thing, the negative fear that doesn't make you brave. Don Giovanni has fear, but he goes along--he has no conflicts. The ultimate fear, the challenge, is death, and he grabs it. By this time, he's done everything on earth, taken every tree, every stone, now it's life itself that is going to challenge him--and he says the heck with it, because he's his own being," says Mattei. "But fear for the Count is the kind that makes him grasp for the old power--and that's when he becomes a tyrant. At the moment that the whole world is collapsing for him, then he becomes dictator, reacting badly because he feels he has been treated badly. That's the fear factor in him talking."

He explains further, "Fear is dangerous, if a person's afraid, he can take insult when he shouldn't, he can take everything wrong. Paranoia. It's terribly, terribly destructive--and that's what is happening to the Count."

Coming back to the production

He liked coming back to this production of DON GIOVANNI at the Met because this time he has more time to think about it. The first time around was something else--he jumped in on short notice when the new production's Don, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, was injured during rehearsals and couldn't go on. He was doing one of his favorite roles, Figaro in IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, but duty (and General Manager, Peter Gelb) called. There was no time for him to think too much about what the Don means in this production: Just get out there and sing and don't trip over yourself.

Doing a role like Giovanni, which he's been performing for a long time, still offers new things to discover for him, returning to it--about how to pace it, for example, and why things are done in a certain way. "I have to be able to understand the relationship between different characters to get my own role settled. For example, why is it that everybody's dancing constantly in this production? I couldn't quite put that together when I first did it. Finally, I developed a little scenario in my head: Zerlina and Masetto are members of a dance company and that's why they dance so much," he explains. "It's something I had to make up; otherwise, I would be disturbed by their dancing. Now, when I say 'amici, buon giorno,' I think, 'ah, there's a dance company in the village.'

'You have to feel it"

"Dealing with Don Giovanni in different productions keeps your creativity moving. It's not doing the same thing and you get bored with it. It's always changing." [Note: In a recent production by German director Sebastian Baumgarten, he did it partly in a gorilla suit.] Does that mean that he doesn't bring what he's done in the role previously to each subsequent production? "Yes, of course, I bring my DNA. But I add to it or take away something that doesn't work for this particular performance. The core of 'me' is still there and will always be; I have to deal with my personality and my special sound and my praxis [the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized].

"You can't try to be Giovanni or the Count--you have to feel it. When you try to do body language, you lose something. If you try to be sexy as Don Giovanni, for instance, then I think you've lost it." Many singers discuss how Mozart is good for the voice and how they come back to it in times of stress. Not Mattei. "Because the Count and Don Giovanni are angry all the time, it's hard on the voice because you have to be angry in lower register. You have to be very powerful and commanding but you can't seem like it. If you have a day with either of them, it's better to sing [Wagner's] TANNHAUSER, which is more lyric."

A lyric voice gets richer

Speaking of TANNHAUSER, or at least the role of Wolfram in the opera, Mattei will be singing it next season at the Met. "Wolfram is one of my favorite roles because the music is gorgeous and amazing. The way I interpret it, at least, the singing is fluid and pouring out. Of course, there is also the character himself: He loves Elizabeth more than life itself and his friendship with Tannhauser is absolutely truthful. Yes, he has high standards for himself--but he doesn't judge others, like Tannhauser. In the end, this is a kind of love."

Does singing Wolfram mean he is changing the direction of the roles he sings? He shakes his head 'no.' "It's a very lyric role. Amfortas in PARSIFAL'--which he sang to acclaim in the Met's new production two years ago--'I wasn't sure about," he admits. "But I found a way of opening my voice and finding a place for the pain." And he has no plans to give up another of his favorite, but lighter, roles, Rossini's Figaro, for heavier repertoire.

"For me, a lyric voice gets richer as well as more flexible and lighter as it ages," he says. "Every character of the voice continues to develop--lyric, drama, the smoothness, the strength. Think of it this way: A voice is like wine. If a good wine only got sour and bitter from aging, that would be pretty bad. In the same way, the voice has to mature, like wine, so you still have the youthfulness while it's getting more mature," he explains. "Well, my wine is still getting better."


Photo: Baritone Peter Mattei

Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

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