Last Thursday’s Charleston Concert Association event showcased the vocal magic of long-cherished opera stars Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey. It’s not often you hear a mezzo-soprano and a bass-baritone perform together in recital. Nor do you often experience the kind of vibrant and sensitive support they got from piano collaborator Martin Katz.
The evening got started with three lovely and challenging mezzo arias. The first two were from Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon: his best-known opera. Von Stade dispatched them with skill, sweet tone, and emotional impact. But the set’s chief delight was a bubbly number from Jacques Offenbach’s operetta, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. She delivered a charming, but silly aria (about declaring war just to keep her beloved army in gallant action) with verve and sure comic instinct.
Enter Mr. Ramey, for a thrilling threesome of arias personifying the devil in opera: the kinds of roles that he built his career on. We got varied incarnations of opera’s most prominent demon, Mephistopheles (from Goethe’s Faust), from three composers: Hector Berlioz (Damnation of Faust), Charles Gounod (Faust), and Arrigo Boito (Mefistofele). In his hallmark growly tones, Ramey (more bass than baritone) dripped menace and evil intent in all three, while showing off the most sinister operatic laugh in the business.
They took us to halftime with a cycle of five folk-based songs by American icon Aaron Copland. All were choice, but I was especially moved by von Stade’s rendition of “Little Horses” – a limpid lullaby I used to sing to my own babies. Likewise, Ramey’s account of “At the River” put a lump in my throat. The evening’s only blooper came with “I Bought Me a Cat,” the concluding comic duet. Ramey apparently forgot which animal (one of many) came next, but they recovered well before starting over.
After intermission came a delightful assortment of more popular Americana, mostly classic Broadway tunes from the likes of Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, and George Gershwin. Our howling ovation got us a brief encore: “Oliver Cromwell,” a catchy nursery-rhyme setting from Benjamin Britten.
I must tell you that both of these revered singers sounded a bit past their primes; after all, they’ve been around for a long time. But they didn’t get where they are for nothing. Their vocal foundations and supreme artistry remain secure, and they bring a wealth of highbrow show-biz experience to their craft. Their wizardry still works.