Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Deborah Voigt @ Barbican Hall, London

9 June 2007

I sense that I was in a minority on Saturday evening.

Deborah Voigt‘s return to London after that incident in 2004 was greeted by enthusiastic applause and standing ovations from many and, yes, it is thrilling to see this usually outstanding artist back on our soil.

But I left the concert hall uninvolved and underwhelmed, disappointed by a vocal recital that had promised so much and delivered so little.

The programme itself was exceptional. Angela Gheorghiu opted for a slushy spread of legato arias in her Barbican recital last month, and here what a treat it was to hear such a diverse and personal selection of items. Voigt may primarily perform in the opera house, but on Saturday, opera was an art form conspicuous for its absence.

Instead, the first half boasted a fascinating Masonic cantata from Mozart, some barely-known early Verdi songs and three evocative Strauss lieder. Perhaps there was an overdose of Bernstein after the interval (not by much though), but I adored both the Respighi songs and the three sublime ditties from Amy Beach.

Not many sopranos could or would embrace so many genres in one recital, but for all the worth of the music, I could not bring myself to be enthusiastic about Ms Voigt’s voice. Certainly, in a climate of underpowered and often overhyped voices, it is pleasing to encounter such a large, rich and powerfully projected soprano. The blistering mood swerves of Strauss’ Lied der Frauen were projected from the platform through exceptionally vibrant tone and dramatic shaping. In Respighi’s Povero cor, I found Voigt’s brisk vibrato thrilling, along with her even projection through the composer’s inconsiderate veers between the vocal registers.

But the timbre of the voice is quite unappealing and its use often questionable. Mozart’s work for voice and piano, Die ihr des unermesslichen Weltalls Schpfer ehrt, was definitely loud, but I found no shaping, no colouring, no nuance. The Verdi songs (mostly from a cycle composed in 1838) were at least prettily phrased, but the pitch was often wayward at both top and bottom, and though the audience loved the Brindisi (a forerunner of those beloved songs in Macbeth, La Traviata and Otello), I found it to be awkwardly breathed.

Perhaps after the interval there was some improvement – Respighi’s Contrasto was especially fine in terms of vocal purity – but Voigt often dipped below the pitch at cadences and even in the British and American songs, too many syllables were lost. The most succesful of the Bernstein numbers was, perhaps predictably, the nonsense patter-song Piccola serenata. Finally I began to hear the truly expressive voice that we had been promised. But I have rarely been so unmoved by Somewhere, that gorgeously plaintive aria from Bernstein’s West Side Story, which was here rushed, poorly shaped and robbed of either any fragility or any warmth. And though Voigt has performed the programme elsewhere (including at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and to glowing reviews), she buried her head in the score throughout. Four very hastily-taken encores later, and I had had enough.

I love the piano, Ms Voigt sang in the most enjoyable of the encores, and it was an appropriate statement. Brian Zeger overpedalled slightly in the Mozart, but elsewhere he provided superbly mellifluous and evocative support. In Strauss’ Lied der Frauen, his agile runs and decorations up and down the keyboard perfectly suggested the wild sea of the first stanza; the echoes on the hillside in stanza four found their counterpoint in the most delicate and transporting shading of the piano’s tone. It was exciting playing.

It was, however, only slight compensation. Deborah Voigt has sounded and will sound better and, perhaps tellingly, the Barbican was barely half full. Did those who did not book know something that I did not? I wonder.

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