There are some opera singers (not a great many) who enjoy giving song recitals with real songs, not just with operatic arias performed before the piano. The most successful of them have learned to moderate the overpowering passions of opera (where they are aided by the addition of costumes, stage sets, lighting, and orchestra, to say nothing of other singers and large choruses) to present what might be called operas in miniature—in which they must create a new character and situation every few minutes without benefit of any of those purely theatrical elements. And the change takes place in the few seconds pause between the end of one song and the beginning of the next.
Deborah Voigt regularly gives vocal recitals and finds interesting repertory to present, interspersed with a handful of very familiar pieces, but also turning up material that is not thrice-familiar. She has a very personable manner on stage, usually saying a few words before most songs as a way of creating a connection with the listener, especially those who are not frequently partakers the art song repertory, but rather come to see and hear an opera star in person.
On Sunday afternoon a modest-sized but enthusiastic audience came to Symphony Hall, where the Celebrity Series of Boston presented Deborah Voigt, a singer best known for the meaty soprano roles of Strauss, Wagner, and Verdi, with her splendid regular accompanist Brian Zeger, in a program entirely of songs, of which the majority (most unusually) were by Americans.
With the exception of two songs from shows of Leonard Bernstein, these were all genuine songs, not numbers pulled out of an opera or theatrical work. But the choice and arrangement revealed the hand of the canny singer, since almost every song built at some point to a powerful—shall I say, operatic”—climax? Perhaps that is the smartest choice to make for a singer appearing in a room the size of Symphony Hall. Genuine song recitals are almost always more satisfying in a smaller space, since a large part of the art of song composition and performance calls for, and rewards, an intimacy that is impossible on the operatic stage.
The soprano began with the three most famous songs by Amy Beach, a Boston composer, and a woman, who in the late 19th century regularly performed piano concertos with the Boston Symphony and premiered her two largest orchestral works—a symphony and a piano concerto–with the orchestra. Her output of songs is substantial, but singers almost always choose the set with lyrics by Robert Browning, each of which builds effectively to a grand vocal climax. Though her diction in these songs was impeccable, it was helpful to have the text in the program book to pick up details at the extremes of range and dynamic in the hall.
The remainder of the first half consisted of songs by major European composers. Two were by Tchaikovsky, songs she had performed in the Tchaikovsky competition that she won in 1990. She admitted that she had not sung them for some years, and indeed the Russian diction was simply not as precise or crisp as the Strauss songs that came next. This is no surprise, perhaps, because Strauss has long been a particularly significant part of her repertory. Partly because of the linguistic clarity, the Strauss songs seemed to blossom more than the Tchaikovsky songs had done. Even so, these great challenges for any soprano seemed to bring some touches of strain at the extremes of range. It was pleasant to hear some relatively unfamiliar songs from Strauss’s large output, though the first half ended with what is quite possibly Strauss’s single most famous song, Zueignung. With great charm she explained that, even though Zueignung had been sung by every vocal student present, she decided to end with it because she loved it so much. No one can wonder why any soprano with an operatic heft of voice would not want to take on this song, which builds in waves to the kind of musical climax that provides a tingle to the listener just before intermission.
The songs of the second half were entirely in English, which partly explained why the program offered no texts. One can see why William Bolcom’s cabaret songs probably don’t need
—or want—texts, because the surprises in the witty narratives could be spoiled. But the serious poetry set by Ben Moore could have benefitted from such aid, because during a fair part of each one the words tended to be lost, and these attractive songs deserve to be heard to best advantage. Moore’s “I am in need of music” is thematically a good opening to the set, while the slyness of “To virgins, to make much of time” offered a charming contrast to the very sweet “This heart that flutters.”
William Bolcom has enriched the repertory especially for singers with a theatrical flair in his growing collection of cabaret songs. Here Deborah Voigt’s dramatic immediacy put across the musical characterizations very effective. The songs chosen for this group— “George,” “At the last lousy moments of love,” and “Toothbrush time”— all expressed a certain sardonic mood, one that Voigt projected wittily.
The final group began with four almost unknown songs (written for concert rather than for the theater) by Leonard Bernstein. They were small-scaled and somewhat overwhelmed in Symphony Hall. But the final four songs—two on the official program and two encores—attracted the most enthusiasm, probably in part because they were the music most familiar to most listeners, but also because Deborah Voigt’s projection of them was most vocally enticing. “It’s gotta be bad to be good” from On the Town was a kind of weary blues that set up “Somewhere” from West Side Story, beginning with the voice unaccompanied and building to hymnlike climax. Here was another sign of the singer’s sense of effective program planning.
The first encore, Irving Berlin’s “I love a piano,” brought a bright spark back to the stage after the relative seriousness of the Bernstein set. But the real surprise, a delightful one, came she had finished singing the song. She flashed a look at the audience as if to say, “I’ve got an idea,” and suddenly sat down on the piano bench with Brian Zeger for a 4-hands version of the song, with a raggy primo to Zeger’s firm support on secondo. Yes, she did love that piano!
After a bit of coy byplay teasing the audience over a second encore, it was granted, and proved to be the expressive highlight of the whole afternoon. Jerome Kern may be considered the Schubert of Broadway composers, but he rarely appears on art-song recitals. On this occasion, however, Deborah Voigt was an extraordinary torch singer with “Can’t help lovin’ that man.”