10 November 2005

Deborah Voigt

Deborah Voigt and Ben Heppner, Lincoln Center presents Great Performers; Avery Fisher Hall, 9.11.2005; c. Fisch, Orchestra of St. Luke's.

So she's moving, cautiously, into deeper Wagner. In two seasons, New York will see her Isolde, and a year later as all the Brünnhildes of the Ring. The voice has really not changed since I first heard her many, many years ago: essentially the same bright, joyous sound that thrives in high tessitura, but solid from top to bottom (a well-integrated chest), enduring the ups and downs of weight loss and gastric bypass, as well as a formidable repertory of Strauss and Wagner-lite. The evening at Avery Fisher Hall presents her Isolde and high Brünnhilde, in duet with the magnificent Ben Heppner, plus the more familiar Elisabeth ('Dich, teure Halle') and Leonore ('Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?'). Though starkly different in heft, quality, and repertoire, Leontyne Price is how her artistry reaches me: distinctively American, their voices are relentless in pure, heavenly happiness: Leontyne is the chorus of angels, Deborah is the mighty wind that carries their wings. The stubborn optimism and gratefulness in their voices (of the Ella Fitzgerald camp, as opposed to Billie Holiday), which in some quarters is condemned as emotional monotonicity, works to their advantage in many great roles: in Voigt's case, her Sieglinde is ecstatic and metahuman; her Chrysothemis is the white-gold light peeking through the solid darkness of Elektra; her big-screen Ariadne is above it all; the Empress she imagines is a true floated goddess. (But let us never speak about her Italian repertoire.) In each of these roles, Voigt becomes a radiant pot of molten silver, and when their music escalates up and hangs out above the staff for lengthy periods, the silver shines, flows, and covers every pore of your skin.

But now we have Isolde and Brünnhilde, two of the more complex figures in the operatic literature. They can be essayed in simple (but magnificent) gestures and still end in success: for instance, Birgit Nilsson does a take-no-prisoners approach to these two roles and blows everyone away with her liquid laserbeam. Voigt does have Nilsson's notes but lacks the density (but who else doesn't) and the thrilling attack onto the note that takes my breath away every single time. I don't know if Voigt can still correct her little pop-song mannerism of ever so slightly sliding up into her top notes, instead of grabbing them solidly right from the first wave cycle of sound escaping her throat. (Varnay slid too, but hers was a more "classical", elegant plié.) Sieglinde advises: attack top notes head-on, Debbie; don't ornament like you're on Broadway. But these are minute concerns. Unfortunately, there remain two main areas that Voigt can't even fake: (1) manic , demented terror and (2) quiet desperation. (Some "singers" have loads of these, but horribly senza voce. We shall not name names here.) These two aspects of coloring are required in measured quantities by Isolde and Brünnhilde, and these might prove to be her Achilles heel. I heard Voigt's Act II Isolde in concert some seasons ago (NYPhil), and back then her reading was straightforward at best. In the interim, Thielemann's influence has appeared to soften and somehow deepen her interpretation, and in last evening's concert (Love duet from Act II), her journey, it seems, has taken her about as far as she's able to go. The first half of the duet settles in the quiet, introspective part of the voice, and here Voigt struggled to color and textualize (or musicize?) emotions other than a secret joy. However, she was splendid during the second half, the ecstatic high tessitura orgasm, where the silver of her instrument gleamed shamelessly. Brünnhilde's final duet from Siegfried, always a unique Olympian challenge (short but a killer of an evening), was better served, with well-enunciated trills and juiced top notes. Extrapolating to the other parts of the Brünnhilde Ring, I look forward to her Acts I and II of Götterdammerung, but will remain ambivalent about her Die Walküre. We shall see.

But a translucent, stupendous sound over-all, laced with goodness and honesty: a kind of glittering thing that thrills the fans of physics and vocal calisthenics. Voigt has flawless technique and ample natural gifts (and what breath control, despite the weight loss), and though she may never be able to change the essential quality of her bright, open, joyful timbre, crossing to legendary (in the heavy Wagner repertoire, as she has done unquestionably in the Strauss) may still be possible if she shifts her attention away from the written music momentarily, and, in awkward ways, loses herself in the queendomain of opera. (Let everything go, Debbie. I will still love you.)

If time allows, I'll speak about the mighty Ben Heppner and the horrid acoustics and atmosphere of Avery Fisher Hall in the coming days. The short of it: I've not heard Heppner in finer form, though of course the recital was tremendously shorter than Aeneas or Tristan. But the molten cream of his tenor, his ravishing phrasing, his full-throated top, all made grand achievements of the Wagner duets, the Act I aria from Der Freischutz, and the winner Walther's Prize Song from Die Meistersinger. Meanwhile, Avery Fisher Hall acoustics is frightening, and that building should be razed to the ground.