Concert review: Whimsical plots bring new vitality to Mozart’s works

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Symphony orchestra concerts don’t generally benefit from plot, and character development is usually left to the sister genre of opera. But the history of music is filled with quirky characters, one of its most important being Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

That notion inspired the programming for the final concert of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Mozart Festival, which concludes this weekend at Heinz Hall. Conducted by music director Manfred Honeck, Friday’s performance featured the composer’s sacred and operatic works. More important, it shed light on Mozart and, by extension, made a case for the use of innovative programming styles to bring such music to life.

Here’s how it worked: The first half was sacred music, including selections from the “Great” Mass in C minor, “Laudate Dominum” from the “Vesperae solennes de confessore,” “Alleluja” from “Exsultate, jubilate,” “Ave, verum corpus,” and selections from the Requiem. The second half offered operatic highlights from “Don Giovanni,” “La nozze di Figaro” and “Die Zauberflote.” The performance featured soprano Sunhae Im, baritone Lucas Meachem, the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh (directed by Betsy Burleigh) and host Don Marinelli, a former professor of drama at Carnegie Mellon University.

Before several pieces, Mr. Marinelli took on characters throughout the hall, playing Leopold Mozart, Empress Maria Theresa, Antonio Salieri and librettists Lorenzo Da Ponte and Emanuel Schikaneder, among others. He was a competent host and a comic actor who set the tone for the music with a script that was at times modern (as when Da Ponte compared Mozart and himself to Lennon and McCart­ney) and historic (as when he quoted a letter by Haydn). It created a play-within-a-concert effect and added a narrative quality to the concert.

Ms. Im was the featured vocalist in the first half, and her honeyed, bell-like tone filled the hall from the opening “Kyrie,” her vibrato fluttering and smooth. At first, she struggled with ornaments and with nimble melodies, at least without compromising volume, but she disposed of those issues in meeting the jumpy demands of “Alleluja.” The emotional heft of her performances of the sacred works didn’t quite translate into the operatic selections; I longed for a more gut-wrenching “Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro,” of the distaught Countess from “Figaro.”

The choir provided solid support and was strong in its own right during a powerful Dies Irae and Lacrimosa from the Requiem; later, male members would achieve the gravitas of this sacred music in a moving “O Isis und Osiris” from “Die Zauberflote.”

Mr. Meachem joined for the operatic works. His natural stage presence paired with Mr. Marinelli, and he frequently drew laughs. The baritone had a consistent voice and, when needed, dispatched a longing quality, although he could be difficult to hear. In “Ein Madchen oder Weibchen” from “Die Zauberflote,” he drank from increasingly large wine glasses, achieving Papageno’s drunkenness with a galloping shape to his phrasing. As Don Giovanni, Mr. Meacham serenaded the audience alongside Stephanie Tretick, a PSO violist who briefly traded her instrument for a mandolin in “Deh vieni alla finestra” and convincingly seduced Ms. Im’s Zerlina in “La ci darem la mano.”

The orchestra prepared selections from the operas with their overtures, drawn tautly by Mr. Honeck. The affair was fast-moving, entertaining and well-choreographed, if occasionally rough around the edges. That is, perhaps, how Mozart would have liked it.

Concert repeats 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Elizabeth Bloom: or 412-263-1750.

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