Opera singer fills hall with demonic display
If you like opera, you know Samuel Ramey. And if you are fond of diabolic roles, you know how good he is. If you don't, make a date with the devil today, and you will find out how majestically wicked he can be.
Ramey, one of the most acclaimed bass-baritones for more than 30 years, exudes power on stage, and his high-decibel voice makes the full orchestra sound gentle. Besides his obvious talent, his flexibility in performing diverse operatic styles, from coloratura to lower bass tessitura, brought him a fame that basses rarely receive.
In concert: 4 p.m. today
Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Tickets: $15 to $65
Information: Call 792-2000 or visit www.honolulusymphony.com.
Besides starring in operas by Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Berlioz, Gounod ... in all the best opera venues in the world, he also features in several orchestra concerts. Especially popular and critically successful are his recitals portraying demonic characters. On Friday, he performed most of the selections from his 2002 CD, "A Date with the Devil."
The program included arias by the cruel characters in Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust," Boito's "Mefistofele," Gounod's "Faust" and Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," alternating with short orchestral works.
All those great evil songs are hard to appreciate out of context -- especially when they are normally complemented by fire, red tails, dark stages and such. The focus then becomes the voice and its emotional delivery. How powerful, how clear, how high, how low, how long can the performer sing those notes?
Ramey's voice is strong in all its possible ranges. Full in the upper-middle register and solid in the lower one, his sensual, dark voice never hesitates. As in a magic spell, on stage he becomes bigger and larger than his real size. His authority and imposing demeanor are effectively intimidating, and even more so when he menacingly hits high solid notes.
His vibrato, however, sometimes overwhelmed the attractive color of the voice, tiring the ears, especially at the beginning of the concert, with Berlioz's arias. The fact is, within the context of a production, this vocal aspect would not be a question. Alternating with other vocal types and ranges, his vibrato would not seem as strong. On the opera stage Ramey has always been a superb interpreter.
Particularly beautifully performed were Boito's "Ave signor" and "Son lo spirito," as well as the rich and powerful "I was never saner" and "I burn, I freeze" by the eclectic Stravinsky. Ramey came back twice after standing ovations to sing Meyerbeer's "Nonnes qui reposez" ("Robert le diable") and Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's "Old Man River" ("Show Boat").
Samuel Wong was guest conductor for this concert. His classy and balanced interpretation of Verdi's Overture of "La Forza del destino" and Stavinsky's "Scherzo à la Russe" showed us once again what a wonderful and intelligent conductor he is.
Valeria Wenderoth has a doctorate in musicology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she also teaches.