PITTSBURGH — The classic way to convey the greatness of a musical masterpiece is to perform it well. These days, extra efforts are often taken to demonstrate the relevance of old music for contemporary listeners.
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Manfred Honeck is an exceptionally imaginative interpreter in both the classic sense and in the modern style of presenting extra context for or re-contextualizing important repertoire. Honeck’s “The Death of Mozart in Words and Music,” presented at Heinz Hall in 2009, added other music as well as spoken words to Mozart’s Requiem. He also presented provocative semi-staged productions of Handel’s Messiah in 2011 and Bach’s St. John Passion in 2016, both created with stage director Sam Helfrich.
Honeck and Helfrich turned their attention to Haydn’s The Creation at concerts on Dec. 1 and 3 at Heinz Hall. The musical performance was thoroughly winning, with excellent singing by the three vocal soloists and the Mendelssohn Choir, felicitous orchestral playing, and a joyously incisive interpretation by the conductor. Balances within the orchestra and with the singers were exemplary. The production, which featured both a story for the singers to act and an ambitious video for additional commentary, was thought-provoking and by turns stimulating and frustrating.
The three-part oratorio was presented in two acts. The first combined Haydn’s Parts 1 and 2, covering the six days of creation; the second act set the story of Adam and Eve. The orchestra and chorus were scrunched together at the back of the stage, leaving a large space in front for the staging.
The first act was set in a classroom, with 16 members of the chorus joining Gabriel and Raphael as students. They gathered during the introduction, Haydn’s striking representation of the chaos. While this served to establish Helfrich’s narrative overlay, it was distracting from Haydn’s surprising, slow-moving music. Thereafter, Helfrich’s staging was a benign context that kept attention on the singers. The class began, and the students’ chaotic movements ended when Uriel began singing his first recitative as the class teacher.
The video, designed by Greg Emetaz with Helfrich, was the more powerful of the additional elements in this production. It brought scientific points to the presentation with an ancient astronomical chart showing the earth at the center of the universe and a burning bomb fuse leading to the big bang of “and there was light.” More generally, the projected images conveyed the mind set of the three singers.
German tenor Werner Güra was superb as Uriel, singing with slightly sweet and refined tone, beautifully shaped lines, and diction that was clear as a bell. The video that accompanied the teacher’s words offered orthodox religious imagery.
Young American baritone Alexander Elliott was brilliant as Raphael, taking full advantage of his resonant lower register and the openness of his top. He also projected the right degree of a boy’s naïve sincerity. The video for his singing employed images that might come to mind for a young person engaging the story of creation. These mainly showed hands playing with small plastic or rubber toys of animals, from whales to Godzilla. The toys soon wore out their welcome, and by the time the performance reached Haydn’s marvelous musical depiction of a worm, the little coiled snake that was shown was just annoying.
Rachele Gilmore was irresistible as Gabriel. The agility of the American soprano’s silvery voice added a lift to her singing that was confident, well-centered, and sensitively nuanced. Gabriel’s video portrayed her to be a more mature young person than Raphael, engaged with the real world rather than play. Gabriel is clearly both an environmentalist (there was a “Save the Earth” placard) and an animal rights supporter. When she sang of flora, we first saw sharp images of a sprouting plant and grass growing. Later, images of dirty coal mining showed us that Gabriel is acutely aware we don’t live in Eden. Similarly, when she sang of birds the video began with images in tune with the words and music. But another video showed chickens being processed industrially. Honeck and Helfrich offered comparably provocative perspectives in Messiah, in which Jesus was portrayed as an illegal immigrant who is tortured and murdered.
After intermission, Haydn’s Part 3 served as Act 2. Helfrich began by presenting Adam and Eve, or Raphael and Gabriel now a little older, as a boy and girl in prom outfits sitting awkwardly on a sofa. Later, they’ve become a bored married couple. She flips through a magazine while he sings of idealistic roles. Raphael returns the favor when she sings, and he plays with a laptop. They are at odds over a TV remote control.
The oratorio was sung in German, but if Honeck and Helfrich wanted to increase the work’s accessibility they might have performed it in English. Haydn wrote it for performances in either language.
Fortunately, the musical attributes of the show were so strong that their gratifications carried the day by providing safe refuge whenever the added elements were too much or too shallow. But the staging and videos do raise important issues because Honeck and Helfrich see the relevance of The Creation and the other religious works they’ve presented as more fundamental than technology props. That’s why, despite the unevenness of the video, this concert presentation had distinctive impact that resonated beyond the drive home from the concert hall.