by Nicholas Jones


I last heardVoigt-Deborah soprano Deborah Voigt at Glimmerglass belting out, of all things, Annie Get Your Gun.” Again at Oberlin, this great Wagnerian proved that she can take that Teutonic passionate heroism and infuse it also with wit and humanity.


Voigt ended her Oberlin program Sunday with the diametrical opposite of Wagner. In the voice of a terrified and hopeful teenager, she sang Bernstein and Sondheim’s great lyric, “Somewhere,” from West Side Story. The song — seemingly simple, and full of traps for the unaware — starts with a dangerous upward leap, a minor seventh (“There’s a…place for us”). Voigt— for whom no leap is un-singable — dared to make the awkwardness of that leap apparent, to let us know it was a difficult moment both for the singer and for Maria, whose song it is, and whose terrible dilemma the song enacts.


Daring to do so earned Voigt the right to sing the rest of that utterly heart-wrenching song with utter sincerity and conviction.


Voigt’s recital at Oberlin’s Finney Chapel was itself an act of daring. The artist frankly told her enthusiastic audience that she was recovering from a throat infection. That illness had led her earlier in the week to cancel her final performance of Puccini’s Fanciulla del West in Liège. She endearingly told her enthusiastic audience that she was singing here simply because she could not bear to miss her Oberlin recital.


It is remarkable, and commendable, that she dared to push on with less than her full voice. There were costs: Finney Chapel is a big hall, and Voigt’s power would normally have rocked every last seat. Sunday, that voice was not quite in evidence. The power, the clarity, and the focus were not fully present. But the musicality and verve of this incredible woman were evident in full force.


Three songs by Amy Beach on texts by Robert Browning were warm and passionate Victorian effusions. Three songs by Respighi followed, of less musical interest than others in the program. In one concession to her vocal condition, two Tchaikovsky songs gave way to what must have been more comfortable and familiar repertoire, Elisabeth’s aria from Tannhäuser (“Dich, teure Halle”) and a short excerpt from Sieglinde, from the Ring.


After intermission, five Strauss songs culminated in a spectacular performance of “Frühlingsfeier,” a song of fin-de-siècle intensity that demands that the singer devote her all to this weirdly ecstatic and Dionysian lament. Voigt did so without reserve.


There followed four literate settings by contemporary composer Benjamin Moore of poems by Elizabeth Bishop, James Joyce, and Robert Herrick, elegantly set. Voigt’s delivery of Herrick’s famous “Gather ye rosebuds” was a sly and knowing instruction to young women by an obviously sexual and experienced senior. It was as if the Dialogues of the Carmelites had suddenly been infiltrated by Mae West.


The program ended with songs of Leonard Bernstein (hence, the “Somewhere” that I began this review with). These were, like the whole program, smart and intriguing selections, including two dark and cynical songs from a 1975 revue, By Bernstein.


Voigt was more than ably supported by pianist Brian Zeger, capable of power, color, and discretion.


Despite her throat condition, Voigt came back for three encores — a Strauss song, Irving Berlin’s comic “I Love a Piano,” and finally a delicate, radiant, and elegantly understated rendition of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s great romantic paean, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine.”


Nicholas Jones is Professor of English at Oberlin College, and a keen amateur musician.




Published on March 5, 2013

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