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She Can Be Tender, but She May Be a Killer, Too

06.11.11
David Robertson
The New York Times

By ZACHARY WOOLFE

A woman is wandering alone in the forest. She stumbles on the corpse of her lover. It gradually becomes possible, even probable, that she — jealous and angry — is the one who killed him.

This is the grim plot of Schoenberg’s Expressionist, Freud-influenced monodrama “Erwartung” (“Expectation”). There are few sopranos who can make the Woman, its dazed, vindictive protagonist, a likable figure, particularly given the music’s bracing atonality. One is Deborah Voigt. Ms. Voigt has made a career out of being guileless; in the Wagner and Strauss roles that are her touchstones, she is indefatigably sympathetic. You always find yourself wanting her to win.

Singing “Erwartung” with the New York Philharmonic on Thursday evening at Avery Fisher Hall, Ms. Voigt seemed most comfortable with the character’s nostalgic passages, her affecting vulnerability. “I knew nothing but you,” she sang tenderly to the body at one point. “Never before did I love anyone so.”

Her more enraged moments were accordingly less convincing. We’re told that the Woman once cursed her lover, but coming from the sweet Ms. Voigt, that was hard to believe. You got a sense of the character’s personality, but less of her stark power. As the long lines grew more intense, Ms. Voigt’s tone sometimes turned wavering and acidulous.

“Erwartung” lasts just half an hour, but it is a brutal workout for a singer: intense and exposed, without clear melodies to latch onto. For every sensitive, carefully shaped phrase, there was another in which Ms. Voigt sounded tired, struggling to penetrate the shifting orchestral textures.

Those textures were often dense but always clear, and the Philharmonic simmered in the work, conducted with assurance by the brilliant David Robertson. In 2006 and ’07, Mr. Robertson, who had recently become music director of the St. Louis Symphony, was said to be in the running for the Philharmonic’s directorship. Still in St. Louis, he remains a favorite guest conductor here.

He opened the concert with Shostakovich’s First Symphony, drawing energetic, focused playing from the orchestra. Like all great conductors, Mr. Robertson didn’t just deliver a beautiful performance. He increased our sense of the work’s strangeness and stature, showing how it recycles rhythmic and melodic material as it goes on while almost imperceptibly transforming from sardonic to sincere.

Or maybe sincere in quotation marks. Even at 19, Shostakovich loved to make listeners wonder if he were joking, and Mr. Robertson played along. There were both high spirits and threat in the lilting, carnivalesque music in the first movement. The second movement’s opening mania, exhilarating and sinister, was followed by a mournfulness somehow both winking and heartfelt. Mr. Robertson kept the tone resolutely ambiguous.

There were tensely beautiful solos from key players — the pianist Jonathan Feldman; the principal associate concertmaster, Sheryl Staples; and the cellist Eileen Moon — but the entire orchestra played with fiery restraint, as it did in Rachmaninoff’s tone poem “The Isle of the Dead.” Under Mr. Robertson that seductively morose work burned.

The program will be repeated on Saturday evening at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center; (212) 875-5656, nyphil.org.