One of the pleasures of a superstar vocal recital is the often offbeat repertoire in which the singer can indulge. For her Celebrity Series of Boston appearance Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall, Deborah Voigt, who’s built a career as a powerhouse dramatic soprano in the works of Wagner and Richard Strauss, eschewed operatic arias in favor of art songs by Amy Beach, Tchaikovsky, and Strauss and then cabaret and musical-theater numbers by Americans Ben Moore, William Bolcom, and Leonard Bernstein.
Voigt has a sense of humor. The black dress she came out in made reference to the worst moment of her career, when she was adjudged too large to wear the black cocktail dress deemed essential to the 2004 Royal Opera House production of Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.” Notably thinner these days, she explained that she’d started off with Beach’s “The Year’s at the Spring” because “we’re all just sick of winter.” She hadn’t performed the two Tchaikovsky songs since winning the gold medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1990; she was singing them now, she said, because “we all get better with age.” For the second half of the program, she appeared in a white, dolmen-sleeved dress, twirling for the audience’s approval.
I wish she had brought the same lightheartedness to her singing. At 53, she can be a bit brash at the top of her decibel range and a bit whispery at the bottom. A less operatic approach — and less forthright accompaniment from her pianist, Brian Zeger — might have brought out more of the words. It didn’t help that the program provided no texts for the second half of the afternoon, not even identifying those of the Moore songs as having been written by Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Herrick, and James Joyce.
The words that were audible weren’t always the right ones: “Somewhere,” from “West Side Story,” ended on “somehow.” But Voigt sang with deep feeling, especially on Strauss’s “Zueignung,” and she was a deft comic actress, blowing a kiss to the audience at the end of Bernstein’s “Another Love,” clowning and mugging through Bolcom’s “George,” “Toothbrush Time,” and “At the Last Lousy Moments of Love.” During her first encore, Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano,” she swooned against Zeger’s Steinway before joining him on the bench to play a duet, more than holding her own. Then she finished with Jerome Kern’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” The voice might have been too big for the song, but it was still a pleasure to hear.