Deborah Voigt’s New Problem

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

If it’s not too indelicate a way to put it, Deborah Voigt is now about as big as an opera star can get these days, one who can sing pretty much what she pleases in the world’s leading houses. Her opulent, dramatic soprano was first admired in the operas of Richard Strauss, but she has hardly neglected the Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini repertory where the need is great and the competition slim. For a while, her weight problems seemed to garner as much publicity as her singing, but all that is in the past thanks to gastric-bypass surgery (surely a dangerous medical procedure for a singer with such a naturally voluptuous voice and secure vocal placement). If Voigt has not exactly turned herself into a glamour queen, she is a handsome woman with a plausible face and figure to suit most any role. Next season at the Metropolitan, she plays Helen of Troy, no less, in a new production of Strauss’s rarely seen Die Ägyptische Helena (a huge Met flop when it was new in the twenties, even with that charismatic blonde sexpot Maria Jeritza), and right now she is appearing in her first Met performances of Tosca.

A change has also come over Voigt’s voice lately, though it’s hard to tell if it’s from weight loss or normal aging—controversy still rages over whether Maria Callas’s drastic diets contributed to her rapid vocal decline. Not that Voigt as yet exhibits any of Callas’s technical problems: Her voice continues to be reliably supported and under control. What is noticeable, however—earlier this season in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and now in Tosca—is a marked thinning of quality at the very center of the instrument, together with a slight acidity and tightening of the tone that has definitely taken the youthful bloom off, especially at the top. This is not necessarily bad, since her basic sound continues to appeal as well as suggest possibilities for a wider range of expressive effects.

So far she hasn’t taken advantage of those options, and I fear that Voigt’s Tosca is not an especially vocally compelling or consistently developed interpretation. Tosca may be maddeningly volatile and impulsive, but Voigt gives us a woman whose personality is simply too fragmented and loosely knit. The whole opening love banter with Cavaradossi has an inappropriate sitcom flavor from which the character never really recovers. The heated theatrics that lead up to Scarpia’s murder seem more mechanically worked out than honestly felt, and the spectacular suicide leap at the end literally comes out of thin air. The words clearly do mean something to Voigt, but she seldom colors them in ways that bring the drama to life. And she seems quite unable to get her voice under the large arcs of Puccini’s melodic lines, launch them to exciting musical purpose, and nail the climactic moment. The final tentative phrases of her Act Two aria are a major disappointment in this respect, or at least they were during her first performance.

Perhaps careful direction and more inspired colleagues could spur Voigt to present a more fully drawn and convincing Tosca than this pallid effort. Franco Farina is a dependable, idiomatic Cavaradossi, but he sings the music with little charm or finesse. James Morris continues the deplorable tradition of casting an aging bass in the baritone role of Scarpia, in this case a bland villain who hardly acts like a fiend worth slashing to death. Conductor Carlo Rizzi keeps the notes moving, but not much else. It’s actually been some time since the Met has come up with a cast able to stir Puccini’s perennial melodrama to life, and right now Franco Zeffirelli’s lush scenery still steals the show.

Giacomo Puccini. Metropolitan Opera. Through May 16.

Deborah Voigt’s New Problem