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Under the auspices of the Carolinas Concert Association, three living music legends — Frederica Von Stade, Samuel Ramey, and collaborative pianist Martin Katz — performed a magnificent recital of arias and American songs in the Belk Theatre of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. World-class talent like this can crowd the stage, but these gracious artists clearly enjoy each other’s company and singing to the house, no matter how full. One has only to read their rosters of accomplishments and dizzying schedules of engagements to marvel anew at how these pros infuse a freshness of interpretation and energy into repertory they’ve sung countless times. Martin Katz is an impeccable stylist whose formidable technique makes playing this sort of marathon seem like a breeze. One comes away grateful for having heard them, and inspired by the transformative power of their music making. Unfortunately there were mistakes in the printed program, the biggest one being the omission of Martin Katz’s biography, which was graciously acknowledged by Von Stade.
Von Stade opened with a set of French arias: Frederick’s Gavotte and “Connais tu le Pays” from Thomas’s Mignon, conveyed with exquisite timing, and the coquettish “Ah, que j’aime les millitaires” from Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. Ramey, known for his diabolical roles, sang three such incarnations. His opener, “Devant la maison” from Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust at first seemed worked and wobbly, especially in the running passages. “Vous qui faites l’endormie” from Gounod’s Faust (oh, those final mocking laughs!) and “Ecco il mondo” from Boito’s Mefistofele fared much better.
The fact that American songs constituted the bulk of their programming — a set each by Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, and a grab bag of Broadway tunes by Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Frederick Loewe, and Irving Berlin — provided ample opportunity to hear the range of each singer’s dramatic abilities apart from the constraints of a given operatic role. The Copland set began with “Why do they shut me out of Heaven?,” the third of Twelve Poems by Emily Dickinson; the rest (“The Dodger,” “Little Horses,” “At the River,” and “I Bought Me A Cat”) were from sets 1 and 2 of Old American Songs.
After intermission, Von Stade led the Gershwin set with a sultry “Do it again.” Ramey ratcheted up the seductive tone of “Embraceable You” with a series of small steps and beckoning gestures toward the audience. “Just Another Rumba” was Ramey’s comic highlight, and their argumentative duet, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” was tailored to include a new verse about opera composers. The Broadway set, beginning with “Don’t Fence Me In,” was, again, a revelation, for the artists allowed this listener to hear new things in these old songs. Sure, the voices are no longer young, but their consummate skill of conveying dramatic truths in genres both large (opera) and small (song), honed over many years, never faltered through their lengthy program. And, they seem equally delighted to sing silly nursery songs (“I Bought Me a Cat,” with gestures) as operatic arias.
The evening was capped by three encores: Von Stade’s hilarious rendition of “Ah! Quel diner je viens de faire” (the “tipsy arietta”) from Offenbach’s La Périchole, Ramey’s rafters-shaking “Ol' Man River,” and a duo rendition of “Oliver Cromwell” by Benjamin Britten.