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'Superstar' Basso : Ramey Sings Recital In Pasadena

January 06, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

Samuel Ramey may not really be the third super-duper basso star of the century, as was recently gushed by the New York Times magazine (Chaliapin and Pinza were named as the others).

Such mindless hype does grave disservice to the likes of Journet, De Reszke, Kipnis, Bohnen, Siepi, Hotter, Christoff, Treigle, Rossi-Lemeni, Tozzi, Hines, Ghiaurov, Talvela, Frick, Neri, Pasero and a dozen others.

Even worse, perhaps, such mindless hype also does a disservice to Ramey. He is still young, as bassos go--44--and he is still very promising.

He commands a big, dark, lyric sound that dips to the basement with ample ease yet also rises to high climaxes with clarion strength. He commands a facile technique that enables him to explore, and conquer, the florid terrain of Baroque opera--terrain off limits to many of his predecessors and colleagues.

He cuts a lithe, slender, handsome figure on the stage, and he is a decent actor. Nevertheless, he still seems to lack a few of the niceties that would justify the stellar image thrust upon him.

Despite all his plush tone, his singing tends to embrace the monochromatic. A preponderance of black is offset occasionally by shades of gray.

Sometimes he obscures true pitch in the eternal quest for resonance. When it comes to interpretive illumination, he often settles for safe, amiable generalities. As a recitalist, he is still relatively inexperienced.

Sunday at Ambassador Auditorium, he was greeted by the fans with the sort of push-button ecstasy normally reserved for tenor idols. In response, he sang beautifully, most of the time, and generously, too. He frequently suggested, however, that his best communicative metier remains the opera house, not the intimate concert hall.

His program represented a long afternoon's journey toward the casual, the comfortable and the theatrical.

At the outset, in obligatory art music of Handel, Purcell and Schubert, he stood stiff, looked blank and traversed well-schooled rote exercises. By encore time, he was tossing off operatic hits with aplomb and genuine animation, keeping the devout up to date on the football scores and giving his considerable all to "Ol' Man River."

Once the dutiful, stilted, potentially introspective warm-up duties were behind him, Ramey courted flamboyance with conviction. He offered an imposing demonstration of heroic bel canto in an aria from Rossini's "Maometto Secondo." He Americanized the charm of some British folk songs as arranged by Benjamin Britten, but here, at last, he made the words count. He sketched the crazed romance of Ravel's Don Quichotte with sure strokes and, perhaps best of all, brought crisp, gutsy wit to four songs of Charles Ives.

The encores, in addition to Kern's deathless ode to the Mississippi, included a nimble account of Figaro's "Non piu andrai" and a thunderous account of Mefistofele's "Ecco il mondo." Finally, Boito's primitive Italian devil took on the suave manners required of his French counterpart in Gounod's mocking serenade.

Warren Jones offered deft support at the piano throughout. His most brilliant effort came, however, in the fiendish galloping accompaniment of Schubert's "An Schwager Kronos."

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