Even to the unpracticed eye, Leontyne Price's appearances must look like rituals.
The radiant smile is not really push-button; it activates on the roaring ovation her first step on stage receives. But the rest--feigned surprise at the outburst, complete with a raised brow, expressions of mock-modesty, and an exact routine of arm maneuvers welcoming the noisy adoration--seems to say: "I've been here many times before."
Sunday night, when the diva returned to Royce Hall, UCLA, to sing virtually the same program she offered earlier this season at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, everything happened on cue. And it was still quite a spectacle.
At 60, Price can claim the same vocal longevity prize as Sutherland and Nilsson (before retirement). While there may be some fudging at the top now, and some hollow tones along with the gloriously expansive ones, the soprano need make no apologies.
A Price recital, which does not stint on favorite arias and always includes American art songs as well as gospel songs, is appropriately geared toward variety and extroversion. But the crowd-pleasers were not invariably the most successful items.
Two little-known rhapsodies by Josef Marx found the singer at her gleaming, heroic best. Three Strauss Lieder also shone, with "Ruhe, meine Seele" an example of regal sorrow. However, "Dove sono" from Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro" was trumpeted rather than spun out as a melancholy reverie.
Sometimes, as in "Un bel di," Price held back for control of the climactic high note. But elsewhere, in melodies by Poulenc, she used her smoky quality to remarkable effect and brought a pointed decadence to "Violon." A group by Lee Hoiby let the singer capitalize on her native American idiom and enthrall the capacity crowd with a soaring "Lady of the Harbor."
For her closing ritual, Price fielded bouquets expertly, offered a solo bow to her trusty accompanist David Garvey, and listened to shouted requests and one man's loud declaration of love. She bestowed four encores upon the grateful. The most cherishable among them, "Summertime," found her interpolating appoggiaturas and mastering the languid line with absolute authority.