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Mattila makes triumphal debut at Symphony Hall

Reprinted from late editionsof yesterday's Globe.

Karita Mattila made her Symphony Hall debut Thursday night, and the Finnish soprano brought the Boston public to its feet, cheering. But she wasn't the only blazing star; conductor James Levine, oboist John Ferrillo, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra were right up there in the firmament with her.

Over the last several years Mattila has emerged from her cool Mozartean cocoon and established herself as one of opera's most electrifying personalities. One of her great triumphs last season was in the title role of Strauss's "Salome," and Levine paid her the compliment of conducting the final scene for her; Strauss's shocker is an opera he dropped from his repertoire decades ago.

Tall, blond, and ripely glamorous, Mattila doesn't look like a nymphet; you have to banish memories of Carol Channing if you want to think of her as Salome. What she has going for her is a gleamingly gorgeous voice, guts, intelligence, and a complete lack of inhibition -- at the Metropolitan Opera she briefly appeared totally nude. There was talk she'd arrive barefoot in Symphony Hall, but she wore high heels and a red dominatrix dress slit above the knee. She and Levine began with the Princess anxiously awaiting the beheading of John the Baptist; this gave Mattila a running start before the high hurdles. She sang sumptuously yet scrupulously over the wide range of the music -- all the way down to a sepulchral low G-sharp -- and with vivid delivery of the text. Sometimes the onstage orchestra threatened to submerge her, but as often as he could, Levine kept her voice luxuriously cushioned by the orchestra. Mattila, always audible, dominated by force of personality. Her tongue flicked lasciviously as she described the "scarlet viper" of John the Baptist's tongue; she stomped her foot in petulant adolescent fury; at the end she stood transfigured and transfixed before collapsing to the floor on one bare knee. The audience went crazy.

The program began with one of Strauss's last masterpieces, the Oboe Concerto written at the request of a young American serviceman, John DeLancie, later principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the teacher of the BSO's Ferrillo, who offered his performance in tribute to his mentor. The music is intimate, elegant, and autumnal, and Ferrillo played it with pinpoint dynamic control, astonishing beauty of tone and span of breath, wit, and quietly radiant feeling. Levine and the orchestra were in his world and Strauss's, and joined the audience in applauding him at the end.

After intermission came Schubert's "Great" C-major Symphony, one of Levine's favorite works (he led the first movement with the score closed on his desk). A couple of climaxes in the second movement felt overdriven, but the performance as a whole was remarkable for vigor of rhythm and focus of detail; Levine was particularly attentive to internal dialogue among instruments and sections. From the opening horn solo through the unflagging energies of the strings in the finale, there was superb solo and ensemble playing, and the second movement was launched with captivating freshness by a man who had already played a concerto, Ferrillo.

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine, music director,
at Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats tonight)

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