Samuel Ramey — Getting Down to Bass-Baritone Basics

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Samuel Ramey (wttw.com)

Not to be confused with Sam Raimi, the flashy filmmaker and director of Spider-Man and The Evil Dead series, American bass-baritone Samuel Ramey has been one of the world’s leading singers since the late seventies, after his contemporary, Norman Treigle’s untimely passing in February 1975, and Cesare Siepi’s retirement from the stage in 1989. His only other vocal competition – in the Italian and French repertoires, that is – has been Ruggero Raimondi, from Bologna, and Ferruccio Furlanetto, born in Sacile, Italy.

It’s hard to believe that the tall, studious-looking singer with the supple yet booming bass voice, from the sticks of Colby, Kansas, would one day become one of the world’s most sought-after lower male voices. But his path to operatic stardom, like that of the other great performers before him, began, simply enough, amid humble surroundings.

Samuel Edward Ramey was born on March 28, 1942, and went on to sing in many high school and college productions in his native Kansas, prior to serious vocal studies at Kansas State University, and later at Wichita State. He claims never to have even heard an opera until his university years, whereupon he became enthralled with the virile sounds and organ-like tones of the great Italian basses, Ezio Pinza (a fine role model, indeed) and the aforementioned Siepi.

I had the vast pleasure, and profound good fortune, to have seen and heard many of Ramey’s earliest performances with the New York City Opera near the beginning of his marvelous career. His debut there, in 1972, was as Zuniga in Bizet’s Carmen – not the most exciting of bass roles, to be sure, but certainly one that a novice artist could shine in. And that he did.

The first time I caught Ramey at his modest best, however, was in Gounod’s romantic opera Faust, in a 1975 revival of Frank Corsaro’s Gothic-style production, which had originally been mounted for City Opera star Norman Treigle and his frequent stage partner at the time, the bubbly Beverly Sills.

Ramey’s fellow singers on the occasion I attended were all talented, aspiring artists of excellent caliber; they included Carol Bayard (Marguerite), Kenneth Riegel (Faust), Thomas Jamerson (Valentin), and Susanne Marsee (Siebel). But the bass’s own elegant and malevolently unctuous Méphistophélès, sung in a smooth-as-silk yet insinuating manner – and in quite viable French – was the unqualified triumph of the evening.

The young singer appeared at City Opera with more frequency throughout the latter part of the seventies. He made a great impression in all the standard pieces assigned to him. For instance, Ramey sang everything from Timur in Puccini’s Turandot, Don Basilio in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Giorgio Walton in Bellini’s I Puritani, and the four villains in Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, to Figaro in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and the Reverend Olin Blitch in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. His illustrious predecessor, Treigle, had sung (with notable success, I might add) many of these same parts at the New York State Theater; but I doubt even Treigle could have tackled these roles with the same artistry or flare, the same richness of tone, and the same unstinting vocal splendor that Ramey had shown in this early phase.

As an example, the night Ramey sang in The Tales of Hoffmann was one I will never forget. I recall, quite vividly and with a fair amount of goose bumps, his superb interpretations of Councilor Lindorf, Coppelius, Dapertutto, and Doctor Miracle – each character individually delineated, both vocally and visually.

This was originally a Tito Capobianco-designed production, built for and prepared around the team of Sills and Treigle. The opera had been revived in 1976 after a brief absence, and Ramey was cast in the part of the four main villains. In true City Opera tradition, he was again surrounded by a fine ensemble that boasted the likes of Gianna Rolandi as Olympia, Patricia Craig as Antonia, James Billings as Spalanzani, and Susanne Marsee as Nicklausse. The conductor was French music expert Julius Rudel, and as Hoffmann, the untested Italian tenor Gaetano Scano, whose vocal mannerisms and stage bearing reminded one of the young Franco Corelli. But the real focus was on Ramey.

The thunderous audience reception that greeted him at the finale to the Act III trio was tumultuous enough; but the shouting and foot stomping encountered at his post-curtain bow was nothing short of overwhelming. He gave an absolutely mesmerizing performance – his diabolical cackle at Antonia’s demise sent shivers down one’s spine. In my opinion, his triumph that night marked the beginning of Ramey’s true rise to super-stardom in the opera world.

The Devil, You Say?

The only remaining work still left to be explored – one that had previously belonged to Treigle, and that Ramey had longed to appear in and put his late rival’s ghost to rest – was the title role of Boito’s Mefistofele. Treigle had recorded his signature part for EMI/Angel Records back in 1973 (with tenor Plácido Domingo and soprano Montserrat Caballé, Rudel conducting), but the production had not been seen at the City Opera for several seasons since his death. It would continue to be unheard there until NYCO approached their burgeoning bass star to appear in the 1978 revival.

Ramey as Mefistofele (super-conductor.blogspot.com)

Again, I had the opportunity to have been present for most of the above performances, but especially for Mefistofele, which I caught on four separate occasions, three of them with Ramey and one with Puerto Rican-born bass-baritone, Justino Díaz (who was fine, but no Ramey). The overall stage design was conceived by Capobianco and Elena Denda, his wife, and had been, at the time of its unveiling, one of the first multimedia productions at the NYCO; it featured the heavy use of slides, back scrims, front and rear projections, as well as strategically placed brass ensembles and backstage choral effects. It was staged specifically with Treigle’s talents in mind, i.e., his bellowing voice (which frequently gave out during performance) and smallish, agile frame, which fit easily into his flesh-toned bodysuit.

For this revival, however, the devil’s makeup and costume were modified somewhat to accommodate Ramey’s more substantial physical features. Taller, broader, and a bit fuller in shape than Treigle – who, if memory serves, looked and acted rather like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy – Ramey sported a newly created, fantastic horned headdress that made it look as if two monstrous tree limbs were growing out of the top of his forehead. He also wore a tattered rag of a robe that bore an uncanny resemblance to a torn spider’s web. These slight but effective alterations were enough to make the part of Boito’s devil truly his own and not just a carbon copy of the original.

As for his voice, it was a singularly spectacular instrument: large, clear, overpowering in its solidity and firmness, and rock steady from top to bottom. His rolling and groveling on the City Opera stage couldn’t match that of Treigle’s, of course – again, the Gollum comparison is quite apt here. However, Ramey hurled his unique bass voice right out into the auditorium with tremendous abandon and projectile-like accuracy. For his efforts, he was given an even more deserved, highly enthusiastic and vociferous standing ovation than in Hoffmann, as the State Theater literally shook from the spontaneous demonstration, with the audience raining down strips of confetti, bouquets of flowers, and torn pages from that evening’s programs onto the stage apron. Ramey basked in the adulation with the self-effacing aplomb of a true artist.

I saw him again in another late seventies presentation of Faust, although this time his portrayal proved much coarser and less refined (less Gallic-sounding, would be the term I’d use) than before, and understandably so, after his long run in the dramatic Boito work. In addition, his co-stars were weaker, which made his assignment that much more noticeable. Still, from there Ramey went on to an absolutely sensational debut at the Metropolitan Opera, in January 1984, as Argante in Handel’s Rinaldo, which marked the official launch of his international opera career – and a vocal and histrionic highpoint as well.

I continued to see him at the Met as Escamillo in Carmen and as Boito’s Mefistofele, in addition to Faust, The Tales of Hoffmann, Verdi’s Nabucco, as King Philip II in the same composer’s Don Carlo, in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and as General Kutuzov in Prokofiev’s War and Peace. But the favorable impression he had made on me initially, when he was a rising young star in the New York City Opera firmament, has never left me, nor has it been repeated by any of his subsequent performances, I’m reluctant to say, with the possible exception of his extraordinary work in Handel. Ramey’s career at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala in Milan, the Vienna State Opera and Salzburg were all warmly and deservedly praised, no questions asked; but the time he spent at the NYCO was, for me, his best and most lasting work.

I will never forget Samuel Ramey’s Timur, his Don Basilio, his four Hoffmann villains, or his Figaro. But his two Devils? Ah, now we’re getting down to bass-baritone basics! ♪

Copyright (c) 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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One thought on “Samuel Ramey — Getting Down to Bass-Baritone Basics

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