Deborah Voigt revisits Strauss and Wagner roles at Ravinia with mixed success

July 10, 2011
By Dennis Polkow

Deborah Voigt performed Wagner and Strauss arias and scenes Saturday night with Christoph Eschenbach and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia. Photo: Dario Acosta

It would be hard to imagine a better pairing to present an evening spotlighting Wagner and Richard Strauss than that of soprano Deborah Voigt and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Voigt has been singing Puccini recently at Lyric Opera: an uneven Tosca two seasons ago and a shoot-’em-up Minnie in La fanciulla del West earlier this year but it is Voigt’s Wagner and Richard Strauss that remain her bread-and-butter roles.

Saturday night’s rare concert appearance offered a sampling of some of Voigt’s most memorable portrayals with the additional benefit of giving the CSO a chance to offer an evening of its longtime signature repertoire as well, under former Ravinia music director and new National Symphony Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach.

Fresh on Voigt’s triumph at the Met with her first-ever Brünnhilde, she oddly chose not to tantalize us by singing anything associated with that definitive Wagnerian soprano role, but rather, revisit more lyrical Wagnerian fare that unfortunately does not currently appear to suit Voigt’s voice best.

For those who heard Voigt sing the role of Sieglinde in Lyric Opera’s Ring Cycle in 2005 before her gastric bypass surgery, this thicker yet less-focused rendition of Sieglinde’s Du bist der Lenz from Act I of Die Walküre bore little resemblance to that clarion performance. It also was marred by a problem that plagued Voigt throughout much of the evening, a tendency to swoop into her climactic high notes slightly under pitch.

Likewise, Elisabeth’s Act II aria Dich teure Halle from Tannhäuser came off a bit shrieky in its opening and sagged under its own weight. Leonore’s Act I Abscheulicher from Fidelio was a more satisfying experience but some of Voigt’s vocal agility still felt tentative.

Orchestral Wagner interludes on the program included the Overture to Tannhäuser and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung, both done with considerable panache by Eschenbach and the CSO.

We haven’t heard much of Eschenbach’s Wagner over the years here, and given the enormously high quality and nuance of these performances, it is clear that both Ravinia and downtown CSO management could be making better use of Eschenbach in fulfilling this noticeable repertoire gap since Daniel Barenboim’s departure five years ago.

With the exception of the falling unison violin lines in need of tightening in the grand restatement of the Tannhäuser theme, this was exceptional Wagner, all the more so given the limited rehearsal time. Eschenbach even inspired the best from veteran principal horn Dale Clevenger, whose offstage rendering of Siegfried’s horn call sounded like the Clevenger of old; in fact, the entire brass section despite some occasional ensemble issues, managed to sound stately and jubilant without overplaying.

Voigt fared better with Richard Strauss. In Ich kann nicht sitzen from Elektra (Chrysothemsis’ scene), her word painting was exquisite as it was especially in the finale of Salome, a stage role that Voigt premiered at the Lyric Opra in 2006 after her celebrated gastric bypass surgery and significant weight loss.

Voigt understands that Salome’s declaration of her twisted love needs to literally soar into the heights even with the CSO is pulling out all of the stops, and that she can do as no Salome since Birgit Nilsson. Although it was distracting that she relied on a score to do the scene, the end result was mesmerizing and as psychologically disturbing as it was musically thrilling. The finale was preceded by a fiery Dance of the Seven Veils, which Eschenbach and the CSO invested with all due swagger and sensuality.

Voigt offered Richard Strauss’s Zueignung as an encore, which worked surprisingly well. By contrast, a heavy rendering of Lerner and Loewe’s I Could Have Danced All Night, despite buoyant accompaniment from Eschenbach and the CSO, came across like something from a musical galaxy far, far away.

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