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Geniuses come together for Pittsburgh Symphony's 'Verdi & Wagner'

| Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Baritone Gregg Baker Credit: Pittsburgh Symphony
Soprano Simona Saturova Credit: Pittsburgh Symphony

That the two greatest opera composers of the 19th century, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, were both born in 1813 is a coincidence.

Yes, they came of age at a fortuitous moment in operatic history, when earlier styles had reached a maturity that meant bold innovation was the next step. But writing “Rigoletto” or “La Traviata,” or “Tristan and Isolde” and “The Ring of the Nibelungs” required their individual and different geniuses.

Manfred Honeck will lead soprano Simona Saturova, baritone Gregg Baker, the Mendelssohn Choir and Pittsburgh Symphony in a tribute to Verdi and Wagner at concerts Friday through Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

Ticket holders can arrive one hour before the concerts for a free choral session on Verdi's The Anvil Chorus, which will be performed as a sing-along at the end of the concerts.

The first half is devoted to Wagner, including music from “Lohengrin,” “The Flying Dutchman,” “Die Gotterdammerung” (The Twilight of the Gods) and “Tannhauser.”

Four excerpts from Verdi's “La Traviata” open the second half, followed by music from “Nabucco,” “Rigoletto” and “Don Carlo.” The concert will conclude with the Triumphal March and Chorus from “Aida” and The Anvil Chorus from “Il Trovatore.”

“It is so interesting, pairing these two together. They seem to be polar opposites but, in fact, have an enormous number of things in common,” says Christopher Hahn, Pittsburgh Opera's general director and host for these symphony concerts.

Verdi was the practical man of the theater. Wagner was far more philosophically oriented, and came to write in very long-scale musical structures. Yet Wagner also was practical, designing and building a unique opera house that is perfect for his music and that remains home to the Bayreuth Festival, which is devoted to his works.

“What has always been fascinating about Verdi is his extreme understanding of the human voice and the range of voices he was writing for,” Hahn says. “Whilst he could write the sublime coloratura of ‘Caro nome,' with all that languid line that really challenges and shows off a soprano of that type to a scintillating degree, he writes as stunningly for tenors and baritones and basses and mezzo-sopranos.”

Hahn says some of the same could be said of Wagner, except Wagner dispensed with closed form arias in favor of extended passages that pose their own vocal challenges. Verdi, at the end of his life, also dispensed with arias in “Falstaff” but that fast-paced comedy could hardly sound less like Wagner.

The composers differ in their use of the chorus, Hahn says.

“Wagner's writing for choruses takes on a sort of world of its own. The choices for this concert, such as Elsa's procession, are magisterial or visceral or haunting in a really stunning way,” he says. “Verdi's writing for chorus is sublime, such as ‘Va, pensiero,' but, in general, he uses the chorus in a jollier way to create atmosphere, the way he does in The Anvil Chorus.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mkanny@tribweb.com or 412-320-7877.

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