Verdi & Wagner Ring Through Heinz Hall

If you are one of those people who thinks that opera does not belong in the concert hall, and that is the reason I did not see you at last night’s performance of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, I would like to implore you to reevaluate your opinion.  Whether you are an opera fan who thinks the symphony is boring, or a symphony fan who doesn’t realize that the voice is, in fact, an instrument (and yes, singers are musicians), last night’s performance is proof enough that music, pure and simple, is the cornerstone of opera.  Of course, I have said many times that opera is theatre and that the stage is its natural home, nestled in amongst costumes, lighting, sets and make-up.  That said, having the opportunity to experience the very fabric of what communicates the drama of opera—the music—in a new and refreshing way would be foolish to pass up.

To this point, despite an evening of fantastic performances by the Pittsburgh Symphony, Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, soprano Simona Šaturová and baritone Gregg Baker, I was left a bit confused as to the intention of this program.  This year is the 200th birthday year of two titans of opera: Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi.  While the program showcased many of their greatest operatic moments, I failed to see a clear statement shine through over all.  The orchestra section of Heinz Hall was unfortunately quite empty, perhaps due to the misguided attitudes regarding opera in the concert hall, which I have already criticized above.  The special-guest of the evening was the Pittsburgh Opera’s General Director, Christopher Hahn, who made for a fine emcee and charmed the audience with interesting program notes and a few cracks at Wagner’s ego, which managed to incite some laughter and applause.  That said, despite the virtue of this seemingly rare collaboration between these neighbors in Pittsburgh’s cultural district, I did not feel totally satisfied that Mr. Hahn’s involvement made for a clear statement on the evening’s purpose.  Was it meant to be largely educational?  A method by which to tone down Wagner’s epic mysticism to balance Verdi’s lyrical romance?  In the end, the marketability of this concert fell too deep into that nebulous region between crowd-pleasing Pops and a serious night at the symphony, perhaps remaining too far to the left for the normal symphony and opera crowd and too far to the right for the casual night out they might have been trying to create.

To the performances, I really cannot sing enough praise.  Maestro Manfred Honeck commanded his orchestra with the same uniqueness and subtle energy that has renewed his contract again and again, now through the 2019/2020 season.  Honeck’s obsession with extreme quiet came through most dramatically during Siegfried’s Funeral Music, excerpted from Wagner’s masterpiece Götterdämmerung, during which the orchestra ultimately bursts open in a showcase of fantastic brass and percussion.  All throughout the evening’s pu-pu platter program, the musicians of the symphony shone brilliantly and made for a unique experience in hearing this music on the stage, rather than floating out of the pit.  Again, in speaking to my previous point, this is reason enough to seek out concert performances of operatic repertoire, as this level of expression and interpretation can only be exemplified with the orchestra front and center.

Soprano Simona Šaturová sang capably, though both she and baritone Gregg Baker seemed much better suited to the Verdi rather than Wagner.   During the second half (the all-Verdi half of the show), each roused their own standing ovation, a gesture I am typically opposed to, but in this case was well warranted.  Ms. Šaturová impressively made simple work of Verdi’s acrobatic passages in Ah, fors’ è lui…sempre libera from La Traviata. While his German left a little to be desired, I was most impressed by Mr. Baker’s O! Du mein holder Abendstern from Tannhäuser.  Equally impressive was Mr. Baker’s physical stature, which was as imposing as his wonderful instrument.  At some point during the evening, I remember realizing that Mr. Baker stood at a height equal to Maestro Honeck, who was standing beside him on the podium.

For me, the most vibrant butterfly of the evening was the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, under the direction of conductor Betsy Burleigh.  Ms. Burleigh had the Mendelssohn sounding better than ever, and they managed to shine forth brilliantly, squeezing more than one tear out of me during Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral from Lohengrin.  The men of the choir in particular sounded excellent, leaping about as Wagner’s chorus of Norwegian sailors in Die fliegende Holländer and Verdi’s saucy matadors in La Traviata.  I am eager to hear more of the Mendelssohn this year.