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Deborah Voigt Recital: Schubert, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Ives, Moore, Bolcom, Sondheim. Deborah Voigt, soprano; Brian Zeger, piano; Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, April 18, 2004 (HS)

If ever there were a voice made for Strauss, it's Deborah Voigt's. In a recital that spanned an impressive range of song composers and styles, four songs by Strauss were the undisputed highlights, showing off the soprano's gleaming sound and impetuous approach to greatest advantage. Three of them were in the main program and, for her first encore, "Freulingsfeier" was a thrilling skyrocket of a performance, culminating in ecstatic, ringing climaxes on the words "Adonis, Adonis." The music and the style are strongly reminiscent of Ariadne's love music in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, a not-too-subtle jab at Covent Garden for replacing her in this summer's production of that opera with a slimmer soprano who could fit into the cocktail dress costume.

Just to make sure no one missed the point, she added a few lines to her second encore, "Wagner Roles," a piece written for her by the American composer Ben Moore. In it, the singer laments always being cast in Wagner operas, dropping in whole phrases from Tristan und Isolde, Tannhauser and, just for fun, a few ho-jo-to-ho's. The protagonist wishes she could sing something lighter, maybe something by Johann Strauss, where the soprano gets the guy. In the final phrases, in which she resigns herself to her fach, she drops in a line about "that thing with the little black dress," and pointedly mentions Strauss along with Wagner in the final line. The audience erupted.

Unfortunately, there were plenty of empty seats. At best the hall, which seats 3,000-plus, was two-thirds full. That would equal the attendance for virtually this same program a week ago at Carnegie Hall in New York. For what it's worth, Dmitri Hvorostovsky nearly filled the cavernous Davies Hall two weeks ago for his all-Russian recital (although to judge by all the Russian being spoken, that audience was heavily larded with ex-patriots unaccustomed to classical recital etiquette, talking during the music and crackling food wrappers unmercifully). This audience was here for one reason -- to revel in a magnificent voice and shower love on the woman who owns it.

Truth be told, the first set of Schubert songs were hard to love. Voigt excelled only in the extended lines of "Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen." In the other Schubert songs, which made little use of her gleaming top voice, she lacked the agility and turn-on-a-dime vocal color changes to give the music its due.

But then came the Strauss set. With this composer's loving use of long-spun phrases that lie above the staff, Voigt was in her element. The songs came to life brilliantly, from the elegant lines of "Ich trage meine Minne" to the nimble romp of "Nichts" and the ecstatic climaxes of "Befreit." Two Tchaikovsky songs were a step back, emphasizing as they did her rich lower register. Impressive, yes, but not her best feature.

For the second half of American songs, Voigt floated on stage looking resplendent in an ice-blue floor-length silky number trimmed in two layers of maribou. The diva gown got a round of applause and she twirled around to show it off. (In retrospect, perhaps she was making another statement: "See, I can look glamorous!")

In a set of Charles Ives songs, she was especially effective in conveying the naive simplicity of "Down East" and "Two Little Flowers," lacking the vocal agility to get the rapid-fire patter of "Very Pleasant" and "The Circus Band," but hearty enough to extract the required laughs. Four Ben Moore songs, settings of well known poems by Joyce, Herrick ("Gather ye rosebuds..."), Keats and Hardy, never quite took off, more the fault of Moore's restrained lyricism than any shortcomings in Voigt's singing.

The final few songs on the program, three by William Bolcom and two by Stephen Sondheim, made good use of Voigt's stage presence and ability to act with the voice, projecting the text. Of the Bolcom cabaret songs, only the rueful "Toothbrush Time" really came off. The convoluted poetry of the final Bolcom song, "George" (which is very funny to read) got lost in the live hall. Those songs need a more intimate venue.

Sondheim's "Losing My Mind," by contrast, made a big impression. It was written for a big Broadway musical, Follies, and it was a treat to hear it sung by such a plush voice, which Voigt reined in just enough to keep it from sounding operatic. The final piece on the program, "I Never Do Anything Twice," was written for a Belgian actress named Régine to sing in a throwaway scene in the 1976 film "The Seven Percent Solution." It makes no great demands on a voice, but Voigt showed a flair for its louche comedy and care for Sondheim's witty lyrics.

After the Strauss and "Wagner Roles" encores, the third go was a set of roof-raising ho-jo-to-ho's, one hopes suggesting that Brünnhilde might be in Voigt's future. She finished with a couple of staples of the American musical -- Jerome Kern's "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" from Showboat, and Lerner & Loewe's "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady. There were more than a few enthusiasts in the audience who wished the singing couldn't have gone all night.

Harvey Steiman




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