What a treasure, what an absolute joy is Benita Valente. At the Terrace Theater last night the American soprano sang lieder ranging from Mozart to Wolf, a repertory in which she has no rival in this country and precious few in the whole world. It was a glorious evening.

She is an intelligent artist with a small and gorgeous voice. A mistress of musical pleasures, Valente always knew when to clip a sweet phrase before its climax, as in Mozart's "Dans un bois solitaire." In Schubert's "Heidenroeslein" her sound was both rustic and angelic. For Strauss' exquisite "Ophelia Songs" she allowed the madness to remain in Cynthia Raim's piano while the singer showed only melancholy and love. And in Wolf's "Singt mein Schatz wie ein Fink" the voice soared beyond its limits in ecstatic triumph.

Her special artistry lies not in the power of her voice or in its dynamic variety. In fact, Schubert's "Nacht und Traeume" wanted truer pianissimi. Yet just as Valente can create the illusion of vocal weight, she can color the voice into a softer focus without actually changing its dynamics. It is not just a vocal trick, either. It is magic, pure and simple.