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28.3.09

Flicka and Ramey

Frederica von StadeOne of many things to have taken a hit in the financial crisis is the gala performance. True, the Metropolitan Opera did quite well with its 125th anniversary gala earlier this month, but it did so with major star power and an opera-centered, staged production instead of speeches and fluff. In better times, it was understandable for Washington Performing Arts Society to think it could book two operatic legends, Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey, to sing a lightweight program and fill the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. In the current climate it could have worked in a smaller hall, but the Washington visit of what Ramey has called "the seniors tour" was not enough of a draw to fill such a large hall.

Samuel RameyBoth voices are long past their prime, threadbare in tone and with notable declines in agility and clarity. That being said, there are still contributions for singers in this career phase to make, as Ramey has shown in recent years with appearances as Claggart in Billy Budd and as Bluebeard and Gianni Schicchi. In 2010, von Stade will make her Chicago farewell in a new opera composed for her by Jake Heggie at Chicago Opera Theater and a solo recital with Heggie at the piano. Unfortunately, this sort of gala-like event barely holds serious interest for very long with the best voices in demanding repertoire. For von Stade and Ramey, the repertoire of their past glories served only to underscore their vocal decline, and the far more numerous examples of fluff, occasionally charming but just as often campy and embarrassing, quickly tried the patience.

Other Articles:

Ronni Reich, The Personality Touch of Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey (Washington Post,

John Fleming, Mighty operatic duo of Ramey and von Stade aims for fun (St. Petersburg Times, March 20)

Adam Parker, Two opera stars close Charleston Concert season (Charleston Post and Courier, March 15)
Von Stade's Mignon was once a wonderful thing, but she is long past the time to be the wide-eyed Frédéric singing the pants-role gavotte Me voici dans son boudoir or the pure, innocent Mignon of Connais-tu le pays, as wonderful as both arias are. She was most in her element in the comic aria Ah, que j'aime les militaires, from Offenbach's La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, a role that Felicity Lott, another singer of roughly von Stade's age, has performed to great acclaim. Von Stade was always, and continues to be, charming and funny on stage, although certain concessions have to be made in terms of her ability to be heard clearly, especially in rapid passagework.

Ramey noted wryly before he began his corresponding set of three big devil arias (Berlioz, Gounod, Boito) that he had spent "probably 75% of my career playing the Devil," adding, "I'm not sure why - my mother always thought I was a little angel." His voice still has enough boom to it for the laughing "Ha-ha-ha" refrain of the Gounod Sérénade, but the wobble noted in both recent stage appearances remains prominent. For a sexagenarian he cuts an admirably slender figure, but it is unlikely he will be picking up his shirtless Mefistofele costume anytime soon. The first half ended with a decent set of Copland songs: most of the cost of a ticket was probably compensated by the chance to hear von Stade's imitation of a goose in I Bought Me a Cat, turned into a duet with Ramey. The second half degenerated into an evening of popular song, with some Gershwin tunes and other "favorites" from American musicals. Martin Katz, the highly regarded accompanist of about the same age as the singers, hopefully was paid double his normal fee.

The next event in the WPAS classical series is this afternoon's appearance by the London Symphony Orchestra (March 28, 4 pm), with Valery Gergiev conducting Prokofiev's first and sixth symphonies, the latter having already reduced Alex Ross to a cold sweat.

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