Samuel Ramey is unique in the recorded history of opera. He is a bass- a true bass at that- with an intoxicatingly beautiful and resonant voice, possessing a phenomenal techniique with which he is able to lift his voice far above the limitations imposed on it by nature. He has sung Scarpia, one of the most demanding baritone roles in the italian repetoire- convincingly, and with an ease and elegance that any verdian baritone would envy. In fact, for a comparable technique among lower voices, one would have to go back to the great "virtuoso" basses of the early-middle of the 19th century such as tamburini, supposedly the greatest vocal genius among all operatic basses. No recordings exist of this extinct breed of singers who could challenge the castrati in the practise of florid singing and bel canto, but there are many detailed descriptions of their performances, vocal sound, and technique; as well as musical transcriptions of exactly what they sung.
Samuel Ramey is undoubtdedly such a singer. His combination of warmth, elegance, and sheer technical brilliance are unmatched among all basses in the history of recorded opera. His style has occasionaly been labelled as bland, pehaps by people who want to hear Chaliapin instead. But as great as the Russian bass was, Ramey posseses an altogether different mentality and represents a different method of schooling- indeed so unique among our time is his style that it is not difficult to understand why people sometimes don't "identify" with his characterisations. We all have ideas of how a certain piece should be performed after all.
By way of comparison, Giuseppe DeLuca was one of the great singers in the early years of the last century. He was a baritone, a great stylist and interpreter in the old belcanto tradition. In many ways his basic approach to singing resembled Rameys: poised, elegant, with an emphasis on restraint and a sort of "inner intensity" in his legato. He is one of the true geniuses among all baritones on record, and yet if one was to listen to him with inflexible modern ears his recordings may perhaps sound strange, maybe even dull and lacking in emotional fireworks. He is simply a different TYPE of singer than we generally hear nowadays, and so is Samuel Ramey.
So how does he sound on these recordings at the age of 60? His vibrato is noticably wider to be sure- so was Joan Sutherlands(among many) at that age, and as in Sutherlands case, it is more noticable on the longer, more legato passages. Be that as it may, his voice is larger, darker, and heavier because of his age, and with a tone as poised and resonant as rameys, a widening vibrato is both part and parcel. Do not mistake it for a wobble of the kind callas or carreras possesed- that is a result of forcing the voice, and Ramey never forces- wide it may be, but his vibrato is even and controlled.
His interpretations of all these characters (particularly the three mephistopheles' in Boito, Berlioz and gounod's operas) have gained tremendously over the years and have reached a peak on this cd. Added to that is the greater maturity of his voice, which raises these performances to a superlative level. In its best moments "A Date with the Devil" shows him to be an unparalleled virtuoso among basses, and still in possesion of the greatest basso-cantante of our time. The very well played and recorded orchestra led by Rudel, with whom Ramey has worked in the past, is a additional bonus.
In conclusion, Samuel Ramey may never eclipse memories of recordings from this repetoire by such singers as Boris Christoff, and George London, but certainly his intention is not to do so. As all of the very greatest singers have done, he is, with his highly unique style, carving out his own significant niche in operatic history.