Concert review: Orchestra and opera meld at Heinz Hall

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There is nearly always an orchestra in an opera production, but seldom opera in an orchestra performance.

It's not the way it used to be. Concert performances of selections from famous opera used to be more common but have now gone the way of light classics. A shame that became all too apparent when the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra reminded us how much fun a night at the opera can be Friday evening at Heinz Hall.

The idea behind such a concert is usually twofold. One, simply to introduce or revisit the operatic repertoire to a different audience (and there is a difference), and two, to highlight the orchestral element in opera music.

PSO music director Manfred Honeck led from the podium while Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn took the role of host. I have thought for years that orchestra concerts should occasionally use a host or something similar, and Mr. Hahn's urbane commentary and funny asides made the case.

But with opera, it is the voices that rule, and in the presence of skilled ones, even mighty brass and virtuoso violins must bow. After all, at their essence, all instruments strive to mimic the voice in some fashion.

Soprano Simona Saturova and baritone Gregg Baker took their roles with might and style, with the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh joining in from time to time.

A further reason behind this concert is the 200th anniversary of the births of the two giants of the opera hall, Wagner and Verdi. Mr. Honeck celebrated both but wisely kept the two rivals at a distance: first half to the German, second to the Italian.

Both singers cultivated the darker shades of tone for the Wagner works. Ms. Saturova's intoning of "Elsa's Dream" from "Lohengrin" was all the more impressive because the soprano later excelled in the lyric beauty of Verdi's "Sempera Libera" from "La Traviata."

Mr. Baker's stout and full voice was an easy match with the "Song to the Evening Star" from "Tannhauser." He exceeded this in his bittersweet interpretation of "Di Provenza il mar" from "Traviata."

Mr. Honeck had the PSO in peak form, from the etherial strains of the Prelude to "Traviata" to the blaring sensation of the "Triumphal March" from "Aida," complete with the elongated and straight Aida trumpets, which the conductor placed in the box seats on either side of the stage.

To cap it off, Mr. Honeck asked patrons to sing the famous "Anvil Chorus" from Verdi's "Il Trovatore." This was no "Messiah" sing-along. It's a bone fide operatic affair, but the audience nailed it.

Well, you surely didn't expect me to criticize the audience, did you? Best to keep the drama on stage this weekend, even if on Heinz Hall's and not at the Benedum Center.

Program repeats tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

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Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. He blogs at www.post-gazette.com/classicalmusings. Twitter: @druckenbrod.


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