Voigt’s mostly American program mixes comedy with drama
There was a time when American-born opera singers hid their origins and adopted Italian-sounding names to gain credibility in the opera house.
Today, however, “Call me Debbie!” seems to be the route to stardom.
Deborah Voigt, the much-admired soprano from California whose personal vicissitudes became embarrassingly public ten years ago and more recently were the basis for an acclaimed one-woman show titled “Voigt Lessons,” took a sort of victory lap Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall, in a relaxed, chatty presentation (with pianist Brian Zeger) of songs mostly by American composers, along with Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss.
Both performances, “Voigt Lessons” last November and Sunday’s recital, were presented by Celebrity Series of Boston.
This reviewer’s companion, who hadn’t seen “Voigt Lessons,” was surprised at the singer’s pop-star entrance Sunday, grinning and waving to the audience, and spreading her arms as if to say “How about this gown, huh?” But Voigt had earned the right.
The latest in a series of girl-next-door American divas that extends back from Renée Fleming and Susan Graham to Judith Blegen, Suzanne Farrell, and Geraldine Farrar, Voigt topped them all by making her own bumpy life the subject of her art. Many opera fans feel they know “Debbie” Voigt as they know no other singer. On Sunday, Voigt acknowledged that feeling, and basked in it.
Nevertheless, her voice sounded a little tight as she kicked off the program with Amy Beach’s brief, ecstatic setting of Robert Browning’s “The year’s at the spring.” Then she paused to tell the audience she was now wishing for two things: spring and more women composers. (The former is notoriously late this year in Boston, but if Voigt looks again, she’ll find plenty of the latter.)
The singer then completed Beach’s set of three Browning songs, Op. 44, with “Ah, Love, but a day” and “I send my heart up to thee.” Her voice seemed to relax into the darker sentiments of the former, and to shape the latter tenderly and sweetly to its soft conclusion. With its glowing piano parts by the pianist-composer, this Beach opus made a satisfying set that deserves to be programmed more often, especially when interpreted as poetically as here.
Speaking without a microphone, Voigt spared her voice by mostly confining her onstage comments to wisecracks and asides, but she did tell the audience she was revisiting two songs by Tchaikovsky that she’d learned long ago for a State Department tour of the Soviet Union. In “Was I not a little blade of grass,” Voigt’s dramatic gifts shone in an understated yet deeply affecting portrait of a young girl married off to an old man she doesn’t love.
“Whether day dawns” was an upbeat love song over Straussian piano ripples, closing with a thumping piano postlude that was the first of several in the afternoon’s program. In all of them, pianist Zeger appeared a little embarrassed to be playing by himself.
For all Voigt’s eagerness to break down the fourth wall with the audience, there was a fifth wall right behind her that she hardly laid a glove on: the one between star singer and accompanist. In an age when at least some recital singers view pianists as chamber-music partners, Voigt was quite content to let Zeger toil facelessly in the back ground, rarely acknowledging his existence, except once to turn around and clap for one of his big postludes.
Zeger proved a proficient player, and alert to those moments when the piano and voice parts were in dialogue with each other. But his playing remained mostly colorless, lest another musical personality somehow insert itself into Voigt’s afternoon. One wonders if this old-fashioned custom wasn’t a disservice to them both, and whether the performance would have benefited from some more red-blooded interaction between singer and pianist, instead of the singer carrying the whole burden of expression by herself.
At least Zeger popped right up from the piano bench to join Voigt in the bows, instead of waiting to be invited by the singer. (Yes, accompanists used to have to do that.)
The recital’s first half closed with a group of five well-known Strauss songs, the last (“Zueignung”) so well-known to voice pupils that Voigt half-apologized for singing it. Clearly in her comfort zone now, Voigt characterized each song with gusto, from the tender simplicity of “Ich trage meine Minne” to comical mugging in the satirical “Schlechtes Wetter” and the startlingly grim ending of “Lob des Leidens.”
All afternoon, the question lingered whether Voigt could channel a vocal instrument designed to cut through orchestras into intimate utterances with piano. At times, the wide-open spaces of Symphony Hall seemed to tempt Voigt to flood the room with sound, as when hard-edged, overblown fortes overwhelmed the intimate sentiments of Strauss’s “Ach, Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden.”
On the other hand, in “Zueignung,” whose climax is an invitation to belt if there ever was one, Voigt reached a fully satisfying fortissimo in proportion to the song’s warm emotion.
The program’s second half featured current or recent American composers, beginning with four attractive songs by Ben Moore (born 1960), who appears to specialize in melodious recital songs that revive lieder’s golden age with a twist. Echoes of Strauss persisted in “I am in need of music,” with its long vocal lines. The tuneful “This heart that flutters” was laid out in strophes à la Schubert, with Voigt expertly varying the expression at each return.
“To the virgins, to make much of time” (better known by its first line, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”) was a high-stepping, humorous interlude, Voigt delivering the lascivious advice with comical frowns and finger-wagging. The angular, dissonant piano figurations of “Bright cap and streamers” kept Zeger busy behind the singer and right through the noisy postlude (this was the one Voigt applauded him for).
Three high-spirited songs by William Bolcom (born 1938)—the cheerfully macabre “George” and two hilarious scenes of love on the rocks, “At the last lousy moments of love” and “Toothbrush time”—got the no-holds-barred comic treatment from Voigt, mixing spoken, sung, and snarled lines, to the audience’s delight.
Then it was time to settle down for six songs by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) that focused on that composer’s reflective side. Following the brief scat song “Piccola serenata,” “So pretty” and “Greeting” mused on children in war and the wonder of birth respectively. In all of these, as elsewhere in the program, Voigt’s soft, intimate singing proved as communicative as her big high notes, if not more so.
“Another love” had charm and swing, and a number from On the Town, “It’s gotta be bad to be good,” went from Broadway to the opera house in the course of Voigt’s performance. The printed program concluded with a hushed, short-breathed arrangement of “Somewhere” from West Side Story.
Returning to the stage for their first bow, Voigt accepted a bouquet of roses, then wasted no time returning with Zeger to the piano for an encore, an uninhibited performance of Irving Berlin’s “I love a piano,” with the singer draping herself over the instrument, helpfully pointing to the manufacturer’s name on the line “I know a fine way/To treat a Steinway,” and seating herself next to Zeger to help play a four-hand rendition of the final chorus. (No comic business for the pianist, of course.)
The final encore, Jerome Kern’s “Can’t stop lovin’ that man of mine” from Showboat, began with Voigt back on that bench, gazing off and musing softly on the song’s verse, and ended with the singer standing center stage, arms raised, pealing out the chorus’s last note. Then it was a smile, a wave, house lights up, and the show was over, just like that.
The next concert presentation by Celebrity Series of Boston will be pianist Marc-André Hamelin, violinist Anthony Marwood, and clarinetist Martin Fröst, 8 p.m. Friday at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.
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