Singers tend to pass through the Academy of Vocal Arts like comets over the horizon. They sometimes don't come into full view until they are well on their way to somewhere else, like the Metropolitan Opera or La Scala Milan.
Thursday night on Spruce Street, where the vocal-training institute operates in its converted row home, you couldn't always know from the school's only-partially successful production of Ariadne auf Naxos which singers might become big, bright objects in the professional realm. Singers develop and falter in unpredictable ways. But there were more than a couple of likely candidates.
Listeners can gauge for themselves Sunday afternoon when WRTI-FM (90.1) broadcasts this AVA Ariadne in a fused version of two different casts recorded over two nights.
It would have been more apparent what kind of expressive ability some of the students had if some of the grownups supporting them had created more favorable conditions. Stage director Dorothy Danner was mostly smart, making good use of what little space there is on the inadequate stage of the school's Helen Corning Warden Theater. Danner opened the opera with the Music Master — well in hand on this night in the authoritative baritone of Timothy Renner — singing in the audience, extending the opera's presence.
But Danner undermined the impact of one of the most beautiful stretches in one of Richard Strauss' most beautiful operas when she created distraction around Zerbinetta's sparkling second-act aria. Alexandra Nowakowski more than filled out the demands of this exhilarating stretch — trills, runs, its own cadenza, and a spectacular high D near the end. The expansive aria (though it really is more than one) is a centerpiece of the opera. But Danner surrounded the soprano with teasing suitors waving big, striped beach towels, drawing too much attention to them.
Strauss' creation has legitimate comic value. It's an opera about opera, and the friction generated when royal patronage decides that both a comic and serious opera be performed simultaneously so the fireworks show can go off on time. But it is also about the unintended resonance of opposing forces — base urges and better selves, high culture and low, the pull of gods and mortals.
The magic of Strauss' score is in how much more viscerally these ideas are conveyed in music than words. But I was struck by how often the conductor of this run, David Aronson, bypassed opportunities to underline the humanity in that music. The orchestra had its challenges with a clarinetist of an odd, pale color, and a small string ensemble that was inadequate in the lovely music that opens the second act.
It's not so much that Aronson's tempos were fast (though they were), but that he often pushed through phrases with a hard-edged determination. A little rubato here and there would have warmed things up.
Among the standouts was mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig as the Composer, both for her plush tone and her agility. With good ideas about putting meaning to text, she is one to watch. Soprano Claire de Monteil was a perfect Ariadne, translating her plight into vocal and dramatic tension.
The production ends up being one that comes in and out of focus. Happily, a greater purpose coalesced around the piece's final section, especially by way of three luscious-voiced nymphs: Naiad (Meryl Dominguez), Dryad (Gabriela Flores), and Echo (Alexandra Razskazoff). You might have had complaints with the way Aronson passed by chances to extend a phrase or let the score breathe. But those last few minutes never fail. The music transforms, and so do we.