As she commenced her encores Deborah Voigt announced that the evening’s recital was her first time in London since the infamous incident at Covent Garden involving a little black dress. Perhaps nerves were the explanation for Voigt’s indifferent performance.
First it is necessary to give some idea of manner and audience response. Voigt played the diva to a “t”. She strode across the Barbican stage with hauteur, and her gesture acknowledging the applause bore more than a passing resemblance to the royal wave. Because it is a long way from center stage to door, and because, like most recitals the song groups were small, there seemed to be almost more processing than singing. This was compounded during the second group of songs – 5 little known (and one can see why) songs by Verdi. After either the first or second, almost before the last note had sounded from the piano, a conspicuous “brava” resounded from somewhere in the stalls. Next thing you know the whole audience is applauding. And from then on there was applause after every song.
Of course the programme notes were partly to blame – no instruction to reserve applause for the end of groups. But Voigt, or at the start of the second half a member of the staff, could have requested this. But no, she seemed to milk it much as she milked the procession from door to center stage. These atmospheric factors further compromised an already weak attempt to build up a sense of narrative in the songs.
As to the character of that weak attempt there was the problem of characterisations and the more fundamental problems with the voice. In terms of characterisation the performance was dull. Between Mozart, Verdi and Respighi, and between the individual songs there was little appreciable difference. One did not feel drawn into a story. The Strauss group which ended the first half was a slight improvement, but more because it showcased the best aspect of the voice, rather than because the performance had really significantly improved.
Vocally, Voigt has all the hallmarks of a singer who has done too much Strauss and Wagner. The result is that her main asset is a powerful top range, but the rest of the voice is verging on a wreck. She could either sing full out at the top, or with a kind of a strain in the middle or inaudibly at the bottom. Phrases sounded snatched, breathless, and more than once one doubted the tuning. Despite having the music in front of her, and even when singing in English, the wrong words were sung, in such a way as to suggest Voigt’s main concern was to get through the phrase without disaster and with at least 90% of the right notes – but further destroying any coherent attempt to convey characterisation and narrative.
Only towards the end of the second half was there real improvement. Voigt finished the programme with songs by Amy Beach and Leonard Bernstein. Characterisation was better here, though vocal problems persisted. But in the end just as Violetta Urmana in a similarly sized venue in Edinburgh was in a totally different league in Strauss, so Dawn Upshaw is in a totally different league when it comes to show tunes. Voigt tried, and something of a personality appeared, but in the end her Bernstein personas were still all too much of a muchness. The improvement was not enough to lift the feelings of boredom and irritation created by the rest of the recital.
It would be nice to believe that Voigt may be one of those singers more suited to the stage than the concert hall, where at least those vocal problems might be a little more masked by the orchestra. On this showing, she should certainly retire from the latter. This was not however the view of the London audience, who applauded with wild enthusiasm.