Gut Feeling: Sally Matthews and Così fan tutte [The Royal Opera’s Così fan tutte, 29 January-17 February 2010]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to Sally Matthews who appears in the latest Covent Garden revival of Jonathan Miller’s production…

Sally Mattrhews. Photograph: David Crookes / EMI Classics

It is just over ten years since Sally Matthews won the Ferrier Award and her progress since has been steady and satisfying. Currently at Covent Garden to sing the role of Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Così fan tutte for the third time, she is shortly to undertake the same role at Glyndebourne and in Munich. The day before we meet an announcement is made by The Royal Opera that having been struck down by Swine Flu just before Christmas Sally has decided to withdraw from what would have been her second role in the house within a few weeks, Asteria in Handel’s Tamerlano on 13 and 17 March, which Sarah Fox will now take.

When she enters you feel that you are meeting the real Sally Matthews: no airs, no graces, no image and, indeed, it’s more accurate to indicate that she simply arrives. She talks candidly and sensibly about her career before we discuss in detail the way in which she interprets the character of Fiordiligi and consequently her view of Così fan tutte which, regarding the plot, is Mozart’s most discussed opera. But what emerges from her comments on her early days is the chance element that proved so crucial in pointing her in the right direction as a singer. She was encouraged to dance at three and was singing the role of Eliza in a school production of My Fair Lady at fifteen, but there’s more to her story than that. “Because I started so young with singing and acting it was something I was always very interested in and apparently at home I was always singing. It was my father’s family who were very musical and he enjoyed playing the piano and singing rock songs. My mother didn’t come from a musical background but it was she who asked me if I would like singing lessons. Luckily the person she happened to find was Cynthia Jolly who taught in Southampton where I was born and who many years ago wrote for Opera magazine. She was very much into the opera scene and that totally influenced her way of teaching. My mother had no idea that that was her area and I could have gone to anyone, but at ten I went to her.”

The fact that at twelve Sally won a singing competition for under-eighteens gave promise of great things to come and, after combining lessons with Cynthia Jolly with the study of music and theatre in a sixth-form college in Hampshire, a scholarship took her to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. “On arrival there I became very shy which is unlike me and it took me a while to find my feet. My teacher Johanna Peters had a very similar technique to Cynthia so there was continuity in that which was fantastic, but when you get to somewhere like that you suddenly find that you’re a small fish in a large pond. Working constantly while adjusting to that made it a stressful place for me, but that prepares you for what lies ahead and since previously I’d done only a tiny bit of Lieder all of that was a revelation to me. With so many great singers around you, you can suddenly feel that you are not as good as you thought, but in my quiet way I think I always felt fairly confident in my ability. My pianist John Cameron and I thought it would be a useful experience to go in for the Ferrier but winning it was beyond our expectations: each time they told us that we had got through to another round we thought that they’d made a mistake.”

As Sally acknowledges, winning the Ferrier competition means that you step into a new arena. “You have to rise to it and although I was still at the Guildhall I did a general audition for Peter Katona at Covent Garden and he offered me the cover of Nannetta in Falstaff. Luckily I went on and did all the shows and while I was rehearsing that I auditioned for the Vilar Young Artists and was invited into the programme so it was a wonderful start and a really exciting time.” If the Guildhall period had its tensions, Sally found that in contrast Covent Garden was much calmer. “It was much less frightening than I thought it would be, and less competitive. I felt very comfortable here and that was a surprise, but everybody was so nice and Justin Way, the director on the revival of Falstaff, was amazingly supportive. Afterwards I went to Glyndebourne to sing Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi: that was a great time too and again the people were lovely.”

Sally’s most memorable appearance as a Young Artist came as Pamina in Die Zauberflöte but one moment that stays in her mind occurred during the run of Falstaff which was conducted by Bernard Haitink. “He advised me on the need to take one step at a time in my career and told me not to be tempted by people who suddenly thought that you should do this or that if you didn’t feel it was right. In effect he advised me to cultivate the power to resist, and that I have never forgotten. Actually I reminded him of it not long ago when we were together for a Beethoven 9. His reaction was to say ‘Oh, God, did I really say that to you? It was so condescending that I can’t believe that I said it’. And I said, ‘No, it was really helpful actually’ because I do believe that it was a fantastic piece of advice. But he was so embarrassed by the thought of it and was mortified to think that he’d ever used those words. He is such a lovely man.”

When it comes to favourite composers Sally does not hesitate: “I love Mahler and Mozart.” And if like a castaway on Desert Island Discs she could ultimately choose only one? “It would be Mozart – he’s the most challenging but also the most beautiful and the most-healthy to sing.” Despite her decisiveness here the range of music that she performs and loves is wide and she stresses not only the importance of opera for her but also of concert-hall work including Oratorio and of Lieder. For her EMI recording debut she collaborated with Malcolm Martineau and they chose Schubert, Richard Strauss and Poulenc while other composers who feature in her repertoire extend from Handel to Delius and from Cavalli to Berg. “Also I sort of relish the challenge of occasionally doing something like Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland which is just completely off the wall and was like nothing I’d done before. It was very difficult to learn so it challenged me musically but not vocally, not at all.” Indeed, in whatever Sally selects to do she always takes account of Haitink’s advice. “I’m really of the opinion that if you’re a decent singer with a reliable technique then it’s possible and exciting to do everything – but not if the role is too big for you in the sense that it pushes you vocally. I always feel in my gut whether or not a role is right for my voice, and if I doubt it even ever-so-slightly then I know it’s best just to wait.”

Whether it is opera or something else – and currently Sally is relishing her work with pianist Simon Lepper on a programme which will take them back to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and will then tour around – the other major consideration for her is cutting down on the time she spends away from home. She has two daughters, one now of school age and the other younger. But if this involves a sometimes difficult balancing act she would have it no other way. She feels that motherhood widens one’s experience of life which in turn increases what you can bring emotionally to singing. She believes too that it was more than coincidence that after that first birth she acquired greater warmth to the bottom of her voice. “It’s amazing but whatever you feel on any particular day comes out in your voice. If you’re a connected singer, one who connects with the role that is, you show everything and if experience makes you a more rounded person then that comes out too.”

This is the moment when before passing on to Così I offer Sally the opportunity to comment on her withdrawal from Tamerlano. When I read of her decision, giving The Royal Opera ample opportunity to find an apposite replacement, I felt that what she had done called not for an apology but for our applause. Learning from her how well another London engagement would have suited her at this time (she lives in Sussex) only confirmed my initial reaction. “A couple of months ago I was unfortunate enough to contract Swine Flu which was just awful, especially when you are given tablets that make you feel ten times worse. It takes a long time to get over it and it’s only now that I feel that I’m coming out at the other end. Vocally I feel great, but my energy level means that I get very tired and need a lot of sleep. There I was preparing Così again while simultaneously doing my own initial work on what would have been a new role as Asteria in Tamerlano and I just felt that I might jeopardise everything if I didn’t take care of myself. If I had gone ahead with Tamerlano I couldn’t have given it everything, and if I do it I really want to do it. I don’t want to feel upset for the people in it, upset for the music staff or upset for myself over delivering a performance that didn’t satisfy me. So I felt it was better to decide now. That meant that Covent Garden could find somebody to do it justice and I can do justice to Così and take care of that properly rather than trying to do everything.”

When it comes to Così our conversation centres on the crucial question about this work, one that needs to be considered closely by any artist taking the role of Fiordiligi. On the surface the plot sounds simple enough: an elderly cynic, Don Alfonso, makes a bet with two younger friends, Ferrando and Guglielmo, that he can prove that their belief in the fidelity of their girlfriends, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi, is misplaced. The proof comes by having each man woo the other’s girl while in disguise, but when the trick is ultimately revealed no harm has been done because the couples revert to their original pairings albeit now more worldly-wise. At least that used to be the accepted view of the plot, but when I first saw the work at English National Opera in the 1970s the programme contained an article arguing that this was wrong. The action might seem to support the old view but close examination of the music suggested instead that Fiordiligi, while fond of Guglielmo, finds true love with the disguised Ferrando – so that the ending was about succumbing to society’s pressure to conform. Which of these views you take is central to the interpretation of the role of Fiordiligi but it’s also significant to the opera itself because the more-recent view transforms it from cruel farce into serious comedy.

Sally responds that “I haven’t really found that there’s a consensus on this but I have my own view. I feel that Fiordiligi is very young and that love is very new to her, so being very honourable when she discovers what she takes to be love with Guglielmo she wants to stick with it. But then she meets Ferrando in disguise and he takes her by surprise because she had really thought that she adored Guglielmo but now recognises that someone else is suddenly finding his way into her heart. Her aria ‘Per pietà’ expresses her concern over the possibility of betraying Guglielmo and if that was the end of it I could believe that she’d made a massive mistake and that it was just one of those things which make you say ‘God, I shouldn’t have done that’. But as things develop she genuinely falls for Ferrando and realises what love is, so that at the end she is completely lost.”

In some respects the two sisters are similar and some of the music they share shows this, but Sally believes that from the very beginning there are also crucial differences. Indeed, in their first scene together it can be seen as highly relevant that when conjuring up their male ideal Fiordiligi refers to a man with a noble face while Dorabella rhapsodises about a man whose charm carries the charge of danger. However, it is the ensuing music which underlines the contrast and aligns Fiordiligi with Ferrando in a significant way. “Fiordiligi’s arias ‘Come scoglio’ and ‘Per pietà’ are very strong, very round and full and reflect her strength of character whereas Dorabella’s music is much more flighty. There’s a depth and complexity to Fiordiligi’s music which corresponds to the weight found in Ferrando’s aria ‘Un’aura amorosa’. In both instances it all comes out in the emotional quality of the music and then there’s the duet in Act Two where they acknowledge their love. The joy there is so real and what they are saying is so honest – indeed, they can hardly believe that they’re being so honest with one another. After the feeling expressed there I can’t feel that it’s possible for her to go back to Guglielmo.”

In so far as the text can be read as showing the original lovers reunited for a happy ending, Sally is encouraged by the fact that she is in this particular production. “It’s very easy to make it flippant and silly at the end which Jonathan Miller doesn’t do: we have lost our way and completely lost our footing, and that’s brilliant. There may be amusing moments but there are no positioned gags and this is not farce but an opportunity to watch human-beings react to one another in ways that we may well recognise and which may be funny but are also real. Yet how much of this you can express may depend on the director.”

I think that it’s true to say that firmly established in the repertoire though Così fan tutte is it has never won the devotion accorded to Le nozze di Figaro or Die Zauberflöte. But this may be due not to any flaw but to the fact that this opera troubles an audience on account of the fact that after two-hundred years it is still confrontational. I turn to Sally to summarise why this may be so. “Because Fiordiligi thought she was in love with Guglielmo but by the end realises that she’s really in love with somebody else it doesn’t mean that she didn’t love him or that her feelings for him have ceased. In ‘Per pietà’ she’s absolutely devastated for him and for what she’s done to him. That’s true of so many modern relationships as I can recognise myself: you’re in love with someone who you thought was the one for you and then suddenly you meet the person for whom you were destined and you can’t ignore it. You realise that you were fooling yourself a bit before, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t desperately care for that other person still. There are lots of people in relationships that perhaps aren’t quite right but they pretend that they are and for such people watching Così can be uncomfortable because it makes them think about their own lives and their own relationships. This production never allows you to get away from that but firmly puts the emphasis on what is going on and what happens to those relationships. So it can in parts be quite difficult to watch, but that comes of doing it properly.”

  • Six performances at 7 p.m. from Friday 29 January to Wednesday 17 February 2010
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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