Ariadne auf Naxos thrives with its stage direction

USC Thornton Opera presented its final opera of the 2015-16 season with Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos on Wednesday. In the first of three shows, the performance was held at Bing Theatre.

Ariadne auf Naxos is one of Strauss’ most beloved operas. Furthermore, its popularity makes it exceedingly difficult to judge without mentally referring to previous stagings. USC Thornton Opera is known for producing operas that are atypical to standard repertoire; however, Ariadne auf Naxos has been on USC Thornton Opera’s to-do list for some time now. In an interview with USC News, Ken Cazan, who is resident stage director and chair of the Vocal Arts and Opera department at Thornton School of Music, expressed his ardor for directing this particular opera.

“It’s a piece I’ve always wanted to do, and we finally have the voices to do it,” Cazan said.

The opera is set in two parts. The first, the Prologue, details the farce between two musical troupes who are scheduled to perform at the home of wealthy Viennese patron. The second half depicts the actual performance, in which both musical groups are forced to merge their respective performances into one. Cazan, who is known for his sharp stage direction, chose to update the piece to reflect German cabaret culture during the latter half of the Weimar Republic.

Considering the difficulty of Strauss’ music, staging this opera with students at a university level was definitely ambitious. However, Brent McMunn, who serves as resident music director of USC Thornton Opera, is no stranger to Strauss; having conducted Ariadne auf Naxos on several occasions, McMunn thrived during Wednesday’s performance. Through McMunn’s direction, the orchestra maintained its opulent sound throughout the evening.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the singing — the performances from the singers did not equate to the richness achieved from the orchestra or stage directions. However, the singers are not entirely at fault; Ariadne auf Naxos requires not only voices that are able to cut through the size of a Straussian orchestra, but also demands immaculate vocal technique in order to avoid pandemonium. Though all singers displayed definite potential, it was perhaps unwise to produce an opera as taxing and strenuous as this. Though USC Thornton Opera has waited many years for the right voices before staging this masterpiece, perhaps another year would have been more appropriate.

The finest singing of the evening, however, came from graduate certificate candidate in Vocal Arts Yelena Dyachek as Der Komponist. Dyachek, a recent winner of the 2016 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, seemed to be in a league of her own. Her colossal voice was complemented by the skilfull, sensitive nature she brought to her character.

Other standouts include Alyssa Wills in the title role. Wills, who is also a Graduate Certificate candidate in Vocal Arts, began the performance a bit precariously; however, she blossomed as the evening continued, delivering a truly stunning “Es gibt ein Reich” during the second part.

Also worth mentioning is first year master’s student Anastasia Malliaras, who proved to be the audience favorite with her cunning interpretation of Zerbinetta. Baritone Matthew Hough, a senior majoring in vocal arts, showed the most potential in his performance as Ein Musiklehrer; with time, his voice will boom into a solid, dramatic instrument.

Ariadne auf Naxos  will again run on Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are free for USC students, faculty and staff. More information regarding USC Thornton Opera’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos can be found online.