Fort Worth — Vocal recitals, and recitals in general, are a rare occurrence these days. In times past, they were common, as the world’s greatest singers crisscrossed the country playing in every little town along the way. In 1850, Jenny Lind embarked on a two-year 93 concert tour that played to sold out houses from big cites to dusty towns. Even in the 1970s, recitals were not quite as rare as they are today. Columbia Artist Management, Inc.,one of the largest such organizations in the world, had an entire division dedicated to touring artists to concert series presenters.
Fortunately for us in the Metroplex, the Van Cliburn Foundation presents a recital series at Bass Performance Hall that brings here the very best performers to present just such an intimate concert. Many are pianists, as you would expect, but not exclusively. This week, they presented a recital by Deborah Voigt, arguably the greatest dramatic soprano in the world.
But, on Tuesday, Brunnhilde she was not.
Elegantly attired in two different evening gowns, she absolutely enchanted the audience with a program full of surprises. The first half featured songs Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Amy (Mrs. H.H.) Beach, a shamefully neglected American composer from the turn of the 20th century. The second half brought us an introduction to the romantic and beautifully neo-romantic songs by a living composer, Benjamin Moore. Then she went pop without going pop. She sang pop-ish songs, but written by classical composers Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom. It was a clever way to sing lighter fare without resorting to singing actual pop songs, which usually flops in an embarrassing manner when opera singers try to go all Michael Feinstein on us.
She described her philosophy in programming this tour in a recent interview as looking at the venues realistically.
“Usually, you have your opera singers and then you have your recital singers,” she told TheaterJones. “Usually, there isn't much crossover. That is part of why I put together an accessible program. You find yourself on a concert series that had Doc Severinsen last week and K.D. Lang next, and the audience is asking 'who is this Voigt person?' ”
Her voice has changed over the years since her breakthrough appearance as Ariadne in Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos with the Boston Lyric Opera in 1991. She was 31 years old at the time, young for a dramatic soprano. It has been straight up ever since and she reached a summit when recently sang Brunnhilde in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s four-opera Ring Cycle. However, she has recently expressed that she is backing away from these huge roles, Isolde in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde among them. They take “…more steel in the voice, more silver than gold,” she told the New York Times in an interview earlier this month.
The voice that she presented on Tuesday had plenty of both gold and silver. She also presented a huge helping of charm and wonderful musical sensibilities. There were still plenty of glorious high notes, but this concert was not about those. It was all about directly communicating, to the audience, the texts of the widely differing songs, as though they were little mini-operas, without overstepping the reserve that the recital format requires.
“But songs are still telling a story and you have to have ability as an actor to pull off even the simplest song,” she said in our interview. “Of course, you can't be flailing around the stage either.”
Voigt achieved this perfectly.
If there was an overriding theme of the recital that Voigt, and the superb collaborative pianist Brian Zeger, presented, it was Love, with both an upper and lower case “L,” in all its permutations.
The Beach songs, from her Opus 44, show their late romantic leanings a bit too much, although they never teeter over to maudlin. The two Tchaikovsky songs, from his Opus 32, are the composer at his impassioned best. In this, they were reminiscent of Lenski’s aria from his opera Eugene Oregon, and Voigt came closest to her operatic persona singing them.
The Strauss set was a grab bag of his most beautiful songs, ending with “Zueignung,” one of his most frequently performed. Her voice took on a different quality in these songs, although you would be hard pressed to put it into words. She is justifiably famous for her interpretations of the big Strauss opera roles, which few others attempt, and you could hear that “Strauss sound” replace the pathos of Tchaikovsky.
After intermission, Benjamin Moore’s four songs greatly impressed. They are unabashedly romantic, without a hint of modernism to be found (much to the relief of many in the audience, no doubt). In fact, they owe more to the current tread towards “Opera on Broadway” these days, such as Sondheim’s stage works that occupy a place in both worlds, and Andrew Lloyd Weber, who borrows from Puccini without a hint of shame.
Bernstein’s song cycle, called Piccola Serenata, was written to be fun and irreverent and as a birthday gift for conductor Karl Böhm. The songs gave Voigt the opportunity to display her musical comedy chops, which she has recently has been exploring (singing Annie Get Your Gun this summer, for example). The clever suite ends seriously, with a moving arrangement of his song “Somewhere” from West Side Story.
William Bolcom wrote 51 Cabaret Songs that rival those of Noel Coward for wit and which have become standard recital fare. The three that ended the program can be summed up by the title of this one: “In the Last Lousy Moments of Love.” Voigt channeled Mae West, and more modern women, aggrieved at the hands of modern, thoughtless men.
Her encore started out as her first foray into “real” pop, as she launched, seductively, into Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano.” But she surprised all as she sat down and shared the bench with Zeger serving up a razzmatazz four-hand version, holding her own at the keyboard…and then some.
Zeger, by the way, was absolutely magnificent throughout.