When soprano Deborah Voigt entered the stage of Oberlin College’s Finney Chapel for her recital on Sunday evening, she was every bit the diva, resplendent in a sparkling gold gown, and with the equally grand setting of the chapel’s imposing pipe organ behind her. But a little later we found out that not only was Ms Voigt’s musical performance going to be very fine, with the excellent Brian Zeger as her piano collaborator, but that Ms Voigt was going to prove a first-class entertainer, too.

Deborah Voigt at Oberlin College © Roger Mastroianni
Deborah Voigt at Oberlin College
© Roger Mastroianni

Amy Beach’s three settings of Robert Browning, published in 1900, were reminiscent of Rachmaninov, with varied emotions, from the exuberant “The Year’s at the Spring” to the more overtly romantic “I Send My Heart Up to Thee”. There seemed to be some moments of hoarseness in Ms Voigt’s voice, and after the opening set she revealed that the week before she was beset with a serious throat infection and, along with antibiotics, she had been on complete vocal rest until just a day or so before this recital. She asked for our indulgence, and said that there would be some program changes.

Ms Voigt’s performance of three rarely heard songs by Respighi showed the skill required of any vocal recitalist of being able to act only with the voice. The second of the set, “Nebbie”, was especially effective, in her coloring of the word “soffro” (“I suffer”), the remark of a scorned lover wandering alone in the dark. The third song, “Notte”, was much more harmonically adventurous, reflecting the overripe text about perfumed roses, pallid gardenias, and tears in the night.

Two songs by Tchaikovsky had been announced for the program; however, Ms Voigt spoke from the stage that she would instead sing two Wagner excerpts. (The audience reaction: “Hooray!”) First was Elisabeth’s aria from Act II of Tannhäuser, “Dich, teure Halle”, in which, in Ms Voigt’s words, the character enters the hall in which the singing competition is going to take place, and says (with sweeping gesture) “Hello, Hall”. At this point, Ms Voigt seemed to have warmed up and her voice had more of the power and gleam that we expect of arguably the leading Wagnerian soprano of our time. She followed the Tannhäuser excerpt with Sieglinde’s aria from Die Walküre, “Du bist der Lenz”, to similar advantage. Ms Voigt noted that before she took on the role of Brünnhilde, she had started as Sieglinde. No-one in the auditorium seemed to regret the substitution of Wagner for Tchaikovsky.

After intermission, Ms Voigt proved her status as a leading interpreter of Richard Strauss in five varied songs. She indulged in some self-mockery in “Schlechtes Wetter”, with its references to the “fat little daughter” with her “golden locks”, presumably in reference to Ms Voigt’s significant weight loss several years ago and her svelte new look. The highlight of the set was the Strauss’ setting of Heine’s “Frühlingsfeier” (“Spring Festival”), with its torrents of arpeggios in the piano and high-voltage vocal line. It was a mini version of the last scene of Salome with the soprano’s impassioned refrain of “Adonis! Adonis!”; Deborah Voigt gave a truly riveting performance.

The tone of the recital then changed completely with songs by Americans Benjamin Moore and Leonard Bernstein. Moore’s songs, although falling into the category of “art song”, are influenced by American Broadway and popular songs – not pretentious, with simple-sounding tunes, but tricky technical challenges. “I Am in Need of Music” is soaring and romantic. Ms Voigt turned Moore’s setting of Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”, into an ironic commentary, when she looked at her ringless left hand at the closing phrases, “For having lost but once your prime, / You may for ever tarry.”

Deborah Voigt closed with six songs by Leonard Bernstein, some unfamiliar, like the brief “Piccola serenata”, sung to nonsense syllables, and “Greeting”, to Bernstein’s own text, reflecting on the birth of his son, to three songs with lyrics by the legendary team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Ms Voigt brought a sure sense of comedy to “It’s gotta be bad to be good” from On the Town. She closed the concert with Bernstein’s classic “Somewhere” from West Side Story.

The audience was rewarded with three encores: Richard Strauss’ “Zueignung”; a hilarious performance of Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano”, during which Ms Voigt made Mr Zeger slide over on the piano bench, and she joined in on a piano duet verse; and finally a torchy rendition of Jerome Kern’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine”, Julie’s song from Showboat. Ms Voigt signaled to the audience that was it, and made her final exit from the stage, ending a recital that will be one of the most memorable of this concert season in northeast Ohio.

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