MUSIC AND DANCE REVIEWS : Skillful Hampson Sells Out Ambassador

One of the rewards of opera stardom is the singer's ability to choose what to sing and where. For fans of the American baritone Thomas Hampson, it meant, Saturday night, that the 39-year-old Spokane native had picked Ambassador Auditorium for his latest recital appearance in Southern California.

It meant also, perhaps inevitably, that the hall would be filled to capacity, with extra seats added to both pit and stage.

Now internationally recognized and celebrated, Hampson seems--and always seemed, in a career going back barely a decade and a half--ever to make the right choices. He made several of them in his latest local performance.

Even with a couple of changes, the baritone's program offered variety, novelty and contrasts. A rare Mozart aria was replaced by another Mozart aria--to the same text. A group of songs by the English composer George Butterworth was scrapped for sentimental reasons--the 60th wedding anniversary of Hampson's friends, Tehmi and Mehli Mehta--in favor of Mahler's "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen," long a Hampson specialty and one he sang beautifully again.

The changes did not matter; the program's balances remained unshakable. This cannily constructed agenda proved strong. And it was for the most part handsomely, if not always spontaneously, performed.

Hampson's voice remains versatile in expressivity, technically solid. If he sometimes errs on the side of understatement, unfocused tone and practical inaudibility, those are artistic choices that can be argued. His forte tone retains its bite and core and ability to garner applause; his weak bottom range seems to cause him no embarrassment.

Emotional projection is another matter. Hampson often makes all the right vocal moves without uncovering the most effective interpretive results: He usually looks involved, he controls his dynamics, he sometimes caresses or spits out words. Yet, the listener is only intermittently convinced.

What emerged most convincing in a generous evening--ending in four encores--were the Mahler songs, the aria, "Non piu andrai," from "Le Nozze di Figaro," and selected songs from groups by composers Edvard Grieg ("Zur Rosenzeit") and Samuel Barber ("O Boundless, Boundless Evening"). Some of these became genuinely touching; others were merely given polished, unprobing treatments.

At the piano, Craig Rutenberg accompanied neatly and with that steady self-effacement some star singers prefer.

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