Deborah Voigt & LSO at Barbican Hall

Tannhäuser – Entry of the Guests [arr. Hoffmann]; Dich, teure Halle
Die Walküre – Du bist der Lenz
Götterdämmerung – Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [arr. Humperdinck]
Die Ägyptische Helena – Zweite Brautnacht
Elektra – Ich kann nicht sitzen
Fidelio – Overture; Abscheulicher!
Salome – Dance of the Seven Veils; Closing Scene

Deborah Voigt (soprano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Asher Fisch

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 12 June, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Deborah Voigt. ©Angel Music / Joanne SavioDeborah Voigt is currently positioned as a jugendlich rather than a hochdramatisch soprano. She has sung Isolde from the latter category but seems content to build her career currently on the upper slopes rather than camping on the summit of the Wagnerian repertoire with Brünnhilde. One wonders if the fact that she did not venture the ‘Immolation Scene’ from “Götterdämmerung” suggests that she considers that role beyond her.

This looked like a rather run-of-the mill recital for dramatic soprano, filled out with orchestral pieces, but may have been more subtly planned. Christopher Cook provided a stimulating essay in the programme-book assessing the treatment of women in nineteenth-century opera. One feminist perspective is that many operatic heroines are cast in a patriarchal system, their role that of victim, their place a domestic one, their function to suffer.

This programme covered a century of German opera. Leading women, Cook pointed out, conventionally sing themselves to death in operatic finales of this period for predominantly male pleasure. However, there is no single highway to guide us through the depiction of women in nineteenth-century opera: at each end of the time-period represented here, as Cook acknowledged, there are wholly different narratives and the evening’s journey took us from Leonore representing woman as hero (1805) to woman in an opera theatre that has become a “house of horror” (Salome, 1905), the latter with the appendix of “Elektra” four years later.

There was an initial flutter in Voigt’s tone in Elisabeth’s greeting to the Hall of Song. She managed the structure of this stop-start aria well; her description of her frozen emotional state in Tannhäuser’s absence swept away by the exhilaration of revived feelings. The climax was cleanly delivered. The parallel passage from “Die Walküre”, in which Sieglinde is inflamed by the arrival of Siegmund as spring was appropriately less rhetorical, the character portrayed as a naïve girl yet to be emotionally fully aroused until this moment.

The voice had already settled. It does not have the laser-like penetration of Birgit Nilsson, rather the warmth and vibrancy of Rita Hunter or Astrid Varnay. Voigt was supremely confident; this already had the feeling of an exhibition match, not a trial, and a team of raucous supporters were in the audience to emphasise the point.

Voigt’s part in “Elektra” at this stage is Chrysothemis, the more human of the two sisters and the one with the more conventionally domestic agenda. The passage performed is sometimes regarded as weaker Strauss but here it just seemed a smart piece of work on the composer’s part, contrasting in its lyricism with the jagged lines and astringent harmonies of Elektra’s music, not a watered-down version but a different idiom used to express feelings which are just as powerful, if less murderous than Elektra’s.

If Strauss later in the opera was to push the bounds of tonality in his inventive musical characterisation of Clytemnestra and anticipate the hideous violence of the twentieth-century in Elektra’s relentless search for revenge, he is equally adept at portraying frustration on a more human scale in this passage. Voigt moved through the connected paragraphs of Chrysothemis’s lament with an assured appreciation of the character and her predicament. Her description of persecuted restlessness, her accusation against Elektra as the source of her enforced captivity, her ecstatic desire to have children, her futile plea to her sister, the sense of time slipping away from her, her envy of women whose pregnancy turns into motherhood, all were contained within a sweeping structure and did full justice to music that is resourceful and expressive.

I had much less time for the extract from later Strauss. Librettist Hofmannsthal’s Egyptian Helen is a long-term adulteress entwined in a complex scheme to re-write the past (aided and abetted by a third archetypal female figure, the manipulative enchantress). Her short but illusory night of happiness is embodied in the opening of the second act, Strauss at his most opulent in his use of the orchestra, yet at the same time shallowest. Artificially restored to her state of greatest beauty, Helen declares herself guardian and protector of the husband who was so recently intent on murdering her for her unfaithfulness.

It is a plan that cannot bring about a satisfactory resolution but ensures an impossibly obscure plot in the opera itself. In these short minutes what came across was the unfriendliness of Strauss’s music to the soprano voice, that very soprano voice which the composer was supposed to love, epitomised by his wife Pauline. Here he allows the orchestra to overwhelm his singer; nevertheless, the voice part has moments of clarity as the orchestral tumult subsides and Voigt’s solid chest register came into its own at such points.

The comparison in the concert’s second half between the beginning of that century and its end proved much to the advantage of Beethoven’s masterpiece. The balance between voice and orchestra was a model of what opera should be. The lacerating string introduction ceasing before Leonore’s great cry of “Abscheulicher”, the orchestral texture allowing her chest voice to be heard at “in wildem Grimme”, loud chords reinforcing, not obscuring significant words in the phrase “rührt nichts mehr deinen Tigersinn”.

Voigt went onto my list of leading interpreters of this role with her noble and distinguished account of all aspects of the aria. Vocal colouring was everywhere apparent, the words “Zorn und Wut” given the right degree of diabolical intensity, followed immediately by an angelic mezza voce for Leonore’s vision of an auspicious rainbow. The potentially uninteresting music that completes the recitative was given with dignity and humanity before the aria with horns (a little blaring in the slow section). She treated “Komm Hoffnung” as a dream, not a certainty, while the wide leaps and scrambling runs of the emerged as a means of characterisation: not a vocal obstacle-course but signs of how unnatural the role of rescuer felt to Leonore.

“Bleeding Chunks” of Wagner are supposed to be a thing of the past but they formed a convincing hors d’oeuvre here. The London Symphony Orchestra, giving its all under Asher Fisch, displayed its wares in what was billed as merely “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” but also incorporated the preceding evocation of Dawn. The build-up of the latter, with its references to the love of Brünnhilde and Siegfried, was finely paced, while the hero’s passage through the fire, over the mighty river and onto terra firma at the Gibichungs’ Hall could be followed in detail, though the grafting onto it of the closing bars of “Götterdämmerung Act Two” jarred more than a little.

‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ exerted the magic born of orchestral virtuosity and without the visual stimulus of dance: Voigt was engaged in “umziehen” rather than “ausziehen”, replacing her iridescent green and lavender outfit with a startling crimson dress which she did not hesitate to display to the audience from several angles; no bloody head on a platter needed here but a constant nudge to our imagination.

The LSO took more limelight in the Final Scene. Norman Del Mar famously described “Elektra” and “Salome” as “stage tone poems”, the culmination of that period in Strauss’s creative life dominated by the successful orchestral compositions. There was certainly rather too much orchestral dominance in this account. Voigt gave a measured performance of the lengthy scene. Salome’s ruthlessness as she urged the executioner to carry out his task, her perversity as she questioned, defied and gloated over the putative head was vivid when not drowned by the orchestra but the clarity of the singer’s enunciation of the words as she turned to explicit eroticism in the closing lines conveyed with chilling immediacy the crazed passion of the princess. As throughout the evening, vocal energy was held in reserve and to the climax she devoted her fullest resources.

There is a growing tendency for encores to be added to recitals with orchestra and Voigt opted for the inevitable “Zueignung” (Richard Strauss) and Lerner & Loewe’s ‘I could have danced all night’ (from “My Fair Lady”). If Deborah Voigt needed rehabilitation, she achieved it here.

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