SANTA BARBARA — Eight summers ago, the paths of an exceptionally talented young soprano, a most promising young baritone and an extraordinarily sensitive young pianist crossed here at the Music Academy of the West.
The singers were students. The accompanist was on the faculty. The artistic chemistry among the three was, by all accounts, something special.
In the intervening years, Kaaren Erickson went on to sing concerts with major orchestras as well as leading roles with such companies as the Seattle Opera, the San Francisco Opera and the Met.
Thomas Hampson moved onward and upward rapidly, making an instant impression on operatic Santa Fe and St. Louis, not to mention Duesseldorf, Cologne and London. Last month he advanced to a resoundingly successful Met debut as the lecherous Count in "Le Nozze di Figaro"--some performances of which gave him a vain opportunity to attempt the seduction of a Susanna named Erickson.
Armen Guzelimian augmented his career in academia with solo performances, direction of a celebrated vocal chamber-music ensemble and collaborations with various stellar recitalists.
Wednesday night, amid the intimate pleasures and acoustical horrors of the Lobero Theater, the three met again. The reunion stimulated obvious happiness, on both sides of the proscenium.
In a day when singers tend to confuse voice with art and volume with quality, Erickson and Hampson seem throwbacks to an earlier age--the age, say, of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Here are two artists who really savor the texts, who value the power of subtle inflection, who cultivate refinement of phrasing and even dare explore the possible degrees of pianissimo.
Erickson did not seem to be at her absolute best on this occasion. Her fundamentally sweet and sensuous tone tended to gain a beat and lose its sheen under pressure.
Nevertheless, when she could play with a soft legato, when she floated a long, arching bel-canto line or defined the pathos of a Strauss Lied with a sigh, she proved that less is still more--especially if it shimmers.
Hampson suggested that he can do almost anything he wants, vocally and dramatically. He is a very polished, very tasteful, very intelligent singer. His penchant for the understated lyrical utterance, however, does not preclude a ringing heroic outburst, and his thoughtful manner hardly gets in the way of an urgent theatrical temperament.
Right now, he seems to be making his mark as a Mozartean, as well he can and should. Still, one longs to hear him as Eugene Onegin, in the much maligned and neglected French repertory, even as Wolfram in "Tannhaeuser."
Although they sometimes relied on the printed score, Erickson and Hampson sang together Wednesday with telling spontaneity, with concentration, seriousness of purpose and mutual sympathy.
Guzelimian didn't just second their motions. He demonstrated a precise understanding of when it is wise to follow, and when it is imperative to lead.
The duet portion of the generous program included the imitative fanfares of Purcell's "Sound the Trumpet," the Baroque flourishes of the climactic exchange between Handel's Caesar and Cleopatra, some touching Mendelssohn nostalgia and Faure's exquisite "Pleurs d'or."
The obvious audience favorites, however, were an exceptionally flirtatious, mildly dangerous "Crudel, perche finora" from "Figaro," and, more problematic, the great Second Act scena from "La Traviata."
The extended Verdi confrontation found Erickson straining for impact as Violetta if not for pathos. Despite his suavity and elegance, Hampson didn't quite capture the juicy Italianita of an ideal Papa Germont.
He did, on the other hand, capture the ideal seductive charm of a blow-in-her-ear Don Giovanni when, at encore time, he had no trouble persuading Erickson's Zerlina to follow him anywhere.
In her solo offerings, Erickson surveyed the radiance of some Faure melodies and the eloquence of some Strauss Lieder. In the latter, she indicated why her performance of the Four Last Songs with the Minnesota Orchestra last year was such a triumph.
For his part, Hampson brought crisp character definition to Debussy's Francois Villon ballads and capped Strauss' "Caecilie" with an astonishing, glorious, swelling cadence.
It was a reassuring evening.