Atlanta Opera courageously took a chance on Peter Ash’s new opera The Golden Ticket this season in an attempt to draw younger audiences to the genre. Based on Roald Dahl’s literary classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a libretto by Dahl biographer Donald Sturrock, The Golden Ticket is a comic opera that might not have made it to the stage had it not been for the bolstering it received from significant voices like Felicity Dahl, the author’s widow, and James Robinson, artistic director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Ash devised his Britten-inspired score for The Golden Ticket for an ensemble of twenty-three soloists. On March 3, the composer conducted his own opera for the first time. Unfortunately, he had to contend with an unruly brass section. From where I was seated, in the mezzanine, intelligibility was a real problem, in particular when singers were accompanied by competing and unrefined musical figures played by trumpet, trombone and horn.
However, the writing for string quartet that is interspersed throughout the opera is quite poignant. Charlie, performed by fourteen-year-old choirboy Ruben Roy, sings a lovely tune over the snoring of his grandparents in Act I and later on a duet with bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as Mr. Know (Willy Wonka in disguise), the procurer of the confectioner’s shop that lies next door to the mysterious candy factory. At the end of the show, Ash skillfully laces an exquisite violin solo into the score when Charlie and Wonka ascend heavenward in a glass elevator.
A.O. featured noteworthy singers — Abigail Nims as Veruca Salt, Ashley Emerson as Violet Beauregard and Kristin Clayton as Mrs. Gloop. But sadly the vocal writing didn’t allow them the opportunity to shine — with a few exceptions. Countertenor Gerald Thompson, portraying Mike Teavee, made an impression with hilarious melismas. Tenor Andrew Drost stole the show as the chubby Augustus Gloop, singing his “Yummy Mummy” monologue and a few high Cs. Keith Jameson’s Grandpa Joe was beautifully sung and left us wanting more.
Okulitch sang the role of Willy Wonka at the world premiere in Saint Louis and made his Atlanta Opera debut in it on this night. Okulitch danced around the stage and captured Wonka’s aloofness, but the role lacks melody and doesn’t highlight Okulitch’s vocal prowess in any way.
In contrast, the opera’s visual aspects are stunning. Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz offered us voluptuous Turkish squirrels with bushy red tails, Oompa Loompas that were a cross between Star Trek’s Spock and Turandot’s Ping, Pang and Pong, and cartoonish, bratty children. Designers Bruno Schwengl, Greg Emetaz and Christopher Akerlind created a riveting boat scene, a dynamic chocolate river and flashing images of sweets. Choreographer Seán Curran animated the show with stylized movements throughout and a quartet of dancers within Charlie’s dream sequence.
Clearly, Ash and Sturrock are on to something here, yet the opera begs for another revision. Even now, the composer admits that there are places within his first opus where he would still like to ‘tinker.’
With a few amendments, The Golden Ticket could become a fanciful one-act opera. (Roald Dahl himself rewrote Charlie no fewer than six times.) The current version will be preserved for posterity’s sake however, regardless of what develops. Atlanta Opera has partnered with American Lyric Theatre to record this production for release as the opera company’s first ever recording.