14 June 2011

Scream Therapy, or Schoenberg’s ‘Erwartung’

Hello, Gorgeous: The Glamorous Miss Voigt
Photo by Peter Ross

Performances of certain works pretty well convince me that the singer must feel great afterward, and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung is one of that ilk. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet sang it a few months ago in Europe, and as I listened over the radio, I had the feeling we were both experiencing catharsis, or orgasm, or something even better. Erwartung ain’t exactly Easy Listening, but it’s surely therapeutic.

Later, however, I wondered. Was my reaction due to the fact that Jeanne-Michèle is a friend, or to the troubled mood I’d been wallowing in the night she sang? I had the opportunity to test the power of the Erwartung again last weekend, as soprano Deborah Voigt sang with the New York Philharmonic, under guest conductor David Robertson.

Portraying a nameless woman who wanders into a creepy forest to await her unfaithful lover — then finds him, dead, probably by her own hand (though she can’t quite be sure) — Voigt let it all hang out and clearly loved doing it. She ran a harrowing gantlet of moods, tones, and atones in 30 minutes, as Schoenberg demands. Much of the score is shrieking, let’s be honest, over a blaring orchestra — but what artful, purposeful shrieks! For the singer, the orchestra, and for me, the tension ratchets up and up, then releases. I walked out feeling positively buoyant, and though I once ran from this piece, I’m fast becoming a bona fide Erwartung fan.

Golden Girl: A Summery Glance by Dario Acosta

Moreover, Voigt looked great doing it. I refer merely neither to her famously slimmer figure, nor to her delectable candy-pink satin gown, but also to expression. She was committed to the music, which is serious as hell, but she was having fun, too.

I don’t know the woman, apart from a handshake several years ago, but I like her. I get the feeling, watching her these days, that she’s cast off not only unwanted pounds but also a number of inhibitions. Surely her new look has accompanied a new attitude: freedom.

I see it in the video from her Metropolitan Opera appearances as Wagner’s Brünnhilde and as Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West last season. There’s playfulness in her presence, but steel in her voice. From here on, she’s going to do things her way, and if we don’t like it, tough. Which is as it should be.

And so she made her entrance, laid-back and smiling. When she sang, she got thoroughly into the character — she can be an awfully good actress — but she was only borrowing this lady’s troubles, and it was good old Debbie, not Schoenberg’s Frau, who took the bow at the end.

I’m beginning to think that Voigt sang Fanciulla not so much because 2011 is the 100th anniversary of that opera’s premiere, but because it struck her as an appropriate warm-up for her forthcoming Annie Get Your Gun (at Glimmerglass Opera this summer). It’s Debbie’s Season of the Cowgirl, dammit, and knowing how good she is in American show music, and how funny she can be,* I’m hoping I get a chance to see her.

I’m certainly convinced that it’s well within Voigt’s right to play Annie Oakley. After all, Anna Russell once characterized Brünnhilde’s duet with Siegfried (which Voigt will sing next season at the Met) as “Anything you can sing, I can sing louder.” So really, who better than Deborah Voigt to tie up these many strands of disparate rep and weave them into something all her own?

And if you don’t like it — tough!

Eternal Nemeses: Debbie and the Dress
At the height of the dress controversy, in 2004, Voigt sang a memorable recital at Carnegie Hall; my review for Opera News can be found here.

*NOTE: To cite but one example, I prize the memory of Voigt’s deadpan in Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten when, as the Empress, she essayed washing dishes for the first time. She knows when and how to be funny, and when and how to be sublime.

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