Voice with Character, Deborah Voigt’s Artist Recital

From the Oberlin Review:

Deborah Voigt, a critically acclaimed soprano, performed at Oberlin last Sunday as part of the Artist Recital Series. As an extremely engrossing and charismatic singer, Voigt took the stage with a wry sense of humor that she skillfully used to engage the audience, inserting sardonic comments between songs. However, more importantly, Voigt’s performance displayed her remarkable voice.

The exuberant aria “Dich, teure Halle, grüss ich wieder,” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, showcased her imposing power as Brian Zeger, pianist and artistic director of the Vocal Arts Department at Juilliard, conjured the churning textures of a large orchestra. This aria and “Du bist der Lenz” from Wagner’s Die Wälkure replaced an originally planned Tchaikovsky set as a result of a vocal infection that Voigt only just recovered from. Richard Strauss’s “Frühlingsfeier” similarly benefitted from her impressive dramatic sense, with its stormy despair and apocalyptic imagery. The operatic “Nebbie,” by Respighi, allowed Voigt to use her broad dynamic and vocal range to become an augur of doom. And she executed the quick runs and leaps of Bernstein’s joking “Piccola serenata” with ease, investing it with a brash playfulness.

Yet that same brashness and a persona of an engaging entertainer — who is present to provide a pleasant evening through her talent and personality — caused some of the songs to lack emotional resonance. “Lob des Leidens” and “Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden,” both part of the Strauss set, are passionate songs about the departure of a lover. It was clear Voigt adores singing and entertaining an audience, however she was unable to leave that enjoyment and fully inhabit the sorrowful speakers of these songs. Likewise, her attempt at a child narrator in Bernstein’s “So pretty” came across as trite and patronizing, though it did feature beautiful phrasing, as Voigt pulled back to a hushed whisper at the ends of melodic lines. Finally, Respighi’s “Contrasto” and Amy Beach’s Three Browning Songs, op. 44, were almost overwhelmed by the heaviness and strength of Voigt’s voice. This is not to say that she sang any of these badly; they were technically and vocally brilliant, and her diction was exceptional. They just do not fit her personality or voice.

Song selection is important for a singer since they must embody a character. If that character appears foreign to the singer and contradictory to their personality, the performance feels false. In the master class Zeger gave Saturday night, he emphasized the necessity for a vocalist to choose emotionally relatable repertoire.

Surprisingly, the songs that best matched Voigt’s temperament were show tunes and their ilk. Bernstein’s “Another Love” and “It’s gotta be bad to be good” both gave plenty of opportunities for sauciness, which Voigt happily took, scooping, rasping and bending notes like a classic American jazz singer. A set of four Benjamin Moore songs, also borrowed from cabaret, fit Voigt’s voice well, though the compositions themselves were overly sentimental.

Voigt is not a one-sided performer though, and was able to tap into the sweetness of Strauss’s “Ich trage meine Minne” for a heartfelt, tender performance. “Notte,” by Respighi, was also a highlight, with its depiction of a garden perfumed by wafting phrases from the piano.

After a gorgeous performance of Strauss’s “Zueignung” for a first encore, Voigt was able to let rip with her coquettish character in Irving Berlin’s raunchy “I Love the Piano,” which included a raucous turn at the piano by Voigt, and the intimate, knowing “Can’t Help Lovin’ dat Man,” from Showboat.

Such an accomplished and captivating performer as Voigt is a joy to watch, especially when their voice is this powerful and capable. But not even the most talented actor can portray a character that clashes with their personality. Voigt should stay with the songs that fit her voice and persona so that she can fully invest her charming self in them. As evidenced by the boisterous cheers and laughs after “I Love the Piano,” the audience clearly loves hearing that personality shine through.

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