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Double Bass

The versatile Samuel Ramey sings the lead in a comedy and a tragedy as Los Angeles Opera closes its season


As unlikely double bills go, it's like pairing "Lucrezia Borgia" and "H.M.S. Pinafore." Or "The Seven Deadly Sins" and "Little Mary Sunshine."

Imagine, then, if the same performer were to star in each.

What's playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion may not be quite that extreme, but it's nearly as challenging. And Samuel Ramey is the hero taking victory laps.

Ramey is starring in the final entry of the Los Angeles Opera season, an unusual duo of 1918 one-act operas: Bela Bartok's "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" and Giacomo Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi," both staged by film director William Friedkin. The production has two more performances, Wednesday and Saturday.

Apparently, some people just love a dare. "For years I've thought it would be an interesting double bill," says Ramey, seated in Los Angeles Opera artistic director Placido Domingo's office at the Music Center on a recent afternoon.

"The two operas are so miles apart, how much more opposite could they be? And the two roles? I just thought it would be a challenge for me to do both in the same evening. It's quite a turnaround."

As if the pairing weren't daunting enough, there's more. "Gianni Schicchi," the Puccini comedy about relatives scrambling for a dead man's money and the charlatan who outwits them for the sake of a pair of young lovers, is a role debut for Ramey. And although he has sung the macabre tale of Bluebeard and his ill-fated wives before in English, he's performed it in Hungarian only in concert, so singing it in Hungarian, fully staged as he does here, is a kind of role debut as well.

The result is a tour de force performance. As Times reviewer Daniel Cariaga wrote: "The American bass-baritone's ... myriad vocal and dramatic resources, remarkably demonstrated as the enigmatic, many-faceted Bluebeard and as the genius-scoundrel Schicchi, had to thrill even the observer who knew in advance the scope of these challenges. Ramey is a national treasure."

As Bluebeard, Ramey is regal and unyielding, yet not without a hint of yearning, suggesting the secrets he and his grisly castle hold. The Duke's undeniable carnality explains why the young Judith (Denyce Graves) cannot resist him, despite the tales she has heard about the wives that have gone before her. Ramey's Bluebeard is both captor and captivating.

Friedkin's vision called for a particularly dark interpretation of the role. "His idea was that this guy's a serial killer," Ramey says. "Usually, the wives are alive and Judith is just escorted and locked up in the room; he's a collector."

Working with Friedkin turned out to be a pleasantly collaborative experience for the veteran singer. "We really came up with things together," Ramey says. "I don't know what I was expecting; I'd never worked with a film director before. But he didn't work that differently from the ordinary."

Ramey's Schicchi is from a different universe than his Bluebeard. He is lithe and jaunty, an ingenious rogue and a creature of whimsy. Indeed, when Ramey makes his entrance in the second opera, his look and style of movement are so different it's almost difficult for the audience to recognize that it's the same singer.

Puccini's lushly romantic music doesn't necessarily lead the audience to expect humor. "The comic roles I've done are not anything like this one," he says of the rarely produced opera, Puccini's only comedy. "It's groundbreaking for me. I'd only seen it once, and that was seven or eight years ago in Chicago. But it's been fun and very interesting. I just experimented during rehearsals."

He's quick to share credit, in this case with Friedkin. "He said, 'Think of this as one of those old MGM musicals,' " Ramey says. "He wanted everything very expansive, with gestures."

At one point in the production, Schicchi does a little jig of glee. "That was something Bill Friedkin came up with," Ramey says. "We had a brunch at his house the first week we were all here rehearsing. He said, 'I want to show you something,' and he took me up into his office and put on a tape of 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.' There was a scene where this old guy starts laughing, and he does this funny dance. And Bill said, 'I want you to do something like that at a certain point. Try to figure out something like that.' "

Born in Colby, Kan., (population 5,000) and based in Chicago, Ramey is one of American opera's home-grown stars. An undeniably magnetic presence onstage, with a bass so seductive it can make opera converts upon a single hearing, he is equally gentlemanly and elegant offstage.

He can also be surprisingly reticent. Although many performers like nothing better than to talk about themselves, he's often reluctant to do so, a trait that suggests Midwestern good manners or maybe just modesty.

Ramey attended Wichita State University, followed by training programs at Central City Opera in Colorado and Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico. He made his New York City Opera debut in 1972 and took his first Metropolitan Opera bows in 1984.

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