Arts & Events

Deborah Voigt in Recital at Herbst Theatre

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday May 05, 2019 - 04:50:00 PM

Although I’ve heard Deborah Voigt quite a few times in live operas, I’ve never been overly impressed with her voice. I found her a capable but not outstanding Wagnerian soprano, and a so-so heroine in several operas of Richard Strauss. Yet I welcomed the opportunity to hear Deborah Voigt sing in the more intimate setting of a recital in Herbst Theatre accompanied by pianist Steven Bailey under the aegis of San Francisco Performances. Thus I went to Herbst Theatre Thursday evening, May 2, with an open and curious mind.  

The results, I am sad to say, were not good. Deborah Voigt chose to offer a mixed bag of Broadway show tunes and German lieder, all supposedly unified under the rubric of “Love Scores”. In a colossal mistake, Ms. Voigt opened the program with “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” from Camelot by Lerner & Lowe. Whether as a result of insufficient vocal warm-up or whatever, Deborah Voigt’s voice in this song sounded tinny, brittle, and, simply, old. Moreover, her voice nearly broke in the middle of this show tune. To cap off her poor judgment in opening with this piece, the combination of unsteady singing and lyrics in praise of maidenhood only magnified the fact that Deborah Voigt’s voice sounded old and tired. Thus, the lyrics, instead of being celebratory,of maidenhood, were dripping with unwanted irony of a rather bitter, backward-looking sort. To make matters worse, Ms. Voigt followed this song with another tune from Lerner & Lowe, “Follow Me,” which while not nearly as glaring in vocal deficiencies, hardly set things aright. I settled in for what promised to be a long and perhaps tedious evening. 

Things perked up a bit in a set of Six Songs, Opus 13, from Alexander Zemlinsky. Deborah Voigt has excellent diction in German, the language of these Zemlinsky art-songs. The songs themselves, however, though they dealt obliquely with love, struck me as undistinguished, except perhaps for the last one, “Sie kam zum Schloß gegangen”/”She Came to the Keep,” set to a German translation of a poem in French by Maurice Maeterlinck. To close out the first half of this recital, Deborah Voigt offered a set of Six Songs, Opus 48, by Edvard Grieg. These songs, also in German, were generally celebratory of Grieg’s happy marriage to soprano Nina Hagerup. Deborah Voigt seemed more at ease in these joyful songs than in anything else on her program. She can still belt out powerful high notes when they are called for, and these Grieg songs gave her ample opportunities. Nonetheless, her voice seemed to have a brittle, hard-edged quality even in the high notes. 

After intermission, the second half of this recital was divided into two sets: one offering the Rückert-Lieder by Gustav Mahler, and the second a set of Broadway show tunes by Cole Porter. I am very fond of the Rückert-Lieder, and I own two excellent recordings of them: one featuring the incomparable mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, and another with mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier. The Rückert-Lieder were originally scored for orchestra & mezzo-soprano; but here they were offered in a piano reduction, ably performed by Steven Bailey, a faculty member, like Deborah Voigt, at San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  

There are five Rückert-Lieder, but Deborah Voigt inexplicably omitted one song, “Um Mitternacht”/”At Midnight,” offering no reason for this omission. In any case, as Deborah Voigt sang them, these Rückert-Lieder were strident instead of bursting with Infinite poignancy. As Deborah Voigt launched into the opening song of the Rückert-Lieder, “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder”/’Look Not Upon My Songs,” her voice sounded tinny and brittle once again. Then, in the next two songs, her voice went shrill at key moments. In the final, very beautiful, song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”/”I Have Become Detached,” Ms. Voigt sang well. However, as I said to my seat-mate, this song of the Rückert-Lieder is so beautiful it’s hard not to sing it well. The fact remains, however, that Deborah Voigt’s hard-edged, high soprano is simply not at all right for the Rückert-Lieder. So even these much-loved songs were, in Deborah Voigt’s hands, a huge disappointment. 

All told, I was so disappointed by this recital that, given my dislike of Broadway show tunes sung by opera singers, I decided not to stay for the program’s final set of Cole Porter tunes. Nonetheless, would I go to hear Deborah Voigt in, say, a live opera by Wagner, Richard Strauss, or even Berlioz’s Les Troyens? The answer, I suppose, is yes. But I would go with considerable trepidation, for Deborah Voigt’s best years are behind her. That much is all too clear.