Deborah Voigt is one of the great sopranos of our age or any other, and although her voice has diminished in recent years she can still delight an audience at the drop of a hat, in just about any context. At her Harriman-Jewell Series recital on October 25th she presented a personal side of herself through some winning songs, some warhorses and some surprises. She was not in ideal voice (she even mentioned being under the weather at one point) so kept the program low-key and avoided – even in the encores – the chunks of Strauss or Wagner for which she has been best known for most of her career. Assisted by the masterfully sensitive, musical, sensuous pianism of Brian Zeger she sang from a refreshingly broad array of songs, from Amy Beach to Bernstein and Bolcom, from Benjamin Moore to Strauss and Tchaikovsky. The Folly Theater program, Debby’s third appearance on the Harriman series, was presented with assistance of Mrs. Beth Ingram and the Richard J. Stern Foundation for the Arts.
Debby oozes personality, and her recital contained much of the boisterous wit and “strength through vulnerability” that made me fall in love with her all over again during her performances as Brünnhilde in the Met’s Ring cycle in 2011. In the three Robert Browning songs (Op. 44) by the 19th-century American composer Amy Beach one felt that all was well in the world: Debby had the proper cheer for “The Year’s at the Spring,” the pathos for “Ah, Love” and the nonchalance for “I Send My Heart Up to Thee.” In two melting Tchaikovsky songs she reminded us that she also sings in Russian, and fairly well: She won First Prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition “a little while ago,” as she said. I don’t believe I’d ever heard her sing Russian before. She got off to a bit of a shaky start in “Was I Not a Blade of Grass” but imbued the song with a heartbreaking sense of grief (“They took me, all unwilling, and married me to an old man I do not love!”); her rhythmic sense in “Whether Day Dawns” was fantastically firm and flexible, carrying you through to the end. The set of Strauss songs were sweet and unpretentious, as Debby showed her signature irony in “Schlechtes Wetter” and her keen sense of Romantic drama in “Ach, Lieb.”
Having worn a chocolate-colored gown with sparkly edges in the first half, for the less formal second half she entered with a slightly risqué midnight-blue number with lace around the upper edge and plenty of shoulder showing. Her four Benjamin Moore songs were exceptional, especially the tender “This Heart That Flutters” and the hearty “To the Virgins.” She was quite at home in six lighthearted Bernstein songs, pensive or jaunty or coy, as necessary. Though she made some harsh sounds in “It’s Got to Be Bad to Be Good” and clipped phrases in “Somewhere,” her warmth and expressiveness came to the fore in “Another Love.” Even more personal, in a witty sort of way, were the three songs by the American William Bolcom, to texts of lost love and even murder, where Debby displayed her knack for both dramatic timing. The encores were “I Love a Piano” (in which she sat down next to Brian and played, quite capably, prima to his seconda) and an attitude-filled “Can’t Stop Lovin’ That Man o’ Mine.”
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