Symphony Hall was aglow with nostalgia last night because two of America's favorite singers were together, Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey. For the better part of three decades, von Stade has been a regular visitor to Boston. Ramey hasn't been here very often, but his many recordings and televised opera and concert appearances have made him a familiar figure too.
Nostalgia aside, there was a fair amount to enjoy in the work of both singers, but especially von Stade; anyone who had not heard them before could easily understand the special bond each has formed with the public.
Ramey led off, clad in a stern frock coat offset by a glittering earring. A song by Purcell and two Handel arias displayed his impressive sonority, vivid diction, and wide vocal range; they also revealed a lot of unsteady tone, and the far-famed coloratura has grown a little rusty. His selections from Copland's "Old American Songs" found him in better shape and finally warmed up. In the second half, dressed for Las Vegas with glittering buttons, he was at something like his best in four songs by Charles Ives, especially "The Circus Band," and his solo encore, "Old Man River," impressively rolled out.
The years have been kind to von Stade as she made the graceful transition between the perfect big sister you always wanted and the best aunt you ever had, with some pretty sexy stages in between. She first offered Faure, her tone still plangent and free, her delivery of text personal and imaginative; she caught each mood perfectly, although the need to sing fast occasionally caught her voice off-balance. Her Copland song, the lullabye "The Little Horses," was exquisite, and she had a lot of fun making animal noises in "I Bought Me a Cat" ("the result of years of vocal preparation," she said).
Her second solo group, after a change into something slinky and black, was a group of songs from Jake Heggie's cycle on texts by poet Vachel Lindsay, "Songs to the Moon." The songs are polystylistic, in the manner of William Bolcom's, but without the edge. The sentimentality is cloying, but Heggie does know how to write for the voice.
The singer got off on the wrong foot in "Send in the Clowns," and apologized by exclaiming "What I'm singing about, I'm doing," and then she started it over, singing on endless breath, with precise characterization and intense emotion. Once again she was irresistible as Offenbach's slightly tipsy Perichole, clutching the piano for support.
Even steadier support came from the prince of American collaborative pianists, Warren Jones (a graduate of the New England Conservatory); he played with complete mastery of music, words, and situation -- he was the third important singer onstage.
Von Stade and Ramey duetted on "People Will Say We're in Love" from "Oklahoma," and the final encore was the seduction duet from Mozart's "Don Giovanni," gently transposed and glowingly sung.