Times Staff Writer

Sherrill Milnes has been singing in Los Angeles since the early 1960s, when, as a budding young American baritone, he visited here in consecutive years as a principal of Boris Goldovsky's touring opera company.

But until Sunday night, Milnes--recently turned 50 and at the top of his profession--had not sung at UCLA. In a generous, varied and satisfying recital with his longtime associate, Jon Spong, at the piano, Milnes made his Royce Hall debut.

No one could have gone away disappointed.

For fans of the operatic excerpt, the much-recorded singer brought the esoteric (Guglielmo's deleted aria from Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte,") and the familiar ("Avant de quitter ces lieux" from "Faust"), as well as the dramatic and semi-familiar ("Qui donc commande quand il aime," from Saint-Saens' "Henri VIII").

For lovers of the accessible Italian song, he offered both the old and the recent: two items by Benedetto Marcello from the 18th Century and a group of four songs by Francesco Santoliquido from the 20th.

For collectors of art songs in English, there were characteristic but contrasting selections from the works of Josephine McGill, Aaron Copland, Hermann Loehr and Alice Jordan.

And for purists who think no singer's recital is complete without representative German music, there was Brahms' "Vier ernste Gesaenge."

To all of these, Milnes contributed textual point, emotional truth and abundant, well-gauged tone--a round, handsome sound in all circumstances, in several languages and many moods. The imposing but personable baritone seems to be in the prime of a distinguished career, one made even more distinguished by the easy way he wears his artistry and achievement.

On this occasion, as on sever previous ones, he was supported c,zl,8.5

with wholehearted and balanced musicality by Spong, his paragon of a pianistic partner.

The most comprehensive display of Milnes' art came in the aria from "Henri VIII," wherein he created an integrated mini-drama of operatic effect. The most poignant moments arrived with brief songs by McGill and Copland: "Duna," "The World Feels Dusty" and "At the River." In Mozart's "Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo" and the songs by Santoliquido (1883-1971), Milnes redefined his stature as a specialist in the Italian repertory.

His singing of Brahms' late-blooming biblical cycle, however, was the high point of this demonstration. Ten years ago, Milnes and Spong brought generalized polish and a certain sobriety to the Four Serious Songs. Today they let the heaviness emerge without prodding, and achieve seriousness by varying textures, not by artificial darkening or weightiness.

The result is both more Gallic and more Brahmsian; by lightening up, they create a transparency in which words emerge strongly and clearly and have greater effect. Without exaggeration, one can say that this proved to be a definitive performance.

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