ArtsATL > Music > Atlanta Opera’s 2011-12 season highlighted by new version of Willy Wonka’s magical Chocolate Factory

Atlanta Opera’s 2011-12 season highlighted by new version of Willy Wonka’s magical Chocolate Factory

The Atlanta Opera’s 2011-12 season, its fifth at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, might be remembered as the year of “The Golden Ticket” — the attention grabber both for opera fans and general audiences. The opera premiered in 2010 and is based on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the fantabulous children’s book by Roald Dahl. The Oompa-Loompas, fat kid Augustus Gloop being swept away by the Chocolate River, the bratty rich girl Veruca Salt, Charlie and his impoverished grandparents sleeping in one bed — the story and images (from the 1970s Gene Wilder movie) have become baby-boomer staples.

This is great news for our local professional opera troupe: a show with mass appeal, hummable tunes, a winning score and in a fully realized production.

Atlanta Opera’s three-production season will consist of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” (November 12-20), “The Golden Ticket” (March 3-11, 2011) and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (April 28-May 6, 2011).

Dennis Hanthorn, Atlanta Opera’s general director, has had his eye on “The Golden Ticket” for a decade. (Photos from Opera Theatre of St. Louis.)

“I’d known of the composer [Peter Ash, an American] and librettist [Donald Sturrock, a Brit] and wanted to produce it in Milwaukee,” says Hanthorn, referring to his former job running Wisconsin’s Florentine Opera. “The name recognition of Willy Wonka for audiences that don’t know opera is huge. I suspected it would be a tremendous success, but we couldn’t raise the funds so had to pass.”

Ash and Sturrock searched for a long time and finally received encouragement and financial help from Felicity Dahl, the novelist’s widow. “The Golden Ticket” was workshopped in New York in 2009 and given its world premiere by Opera Theatre of St. Louis, in June 2010, as a co-commission with New York’s American Lyric Theater and England’s Wexford Festival.

“At last, after years of listening to mediocre attempts by other composers,” Felicity Dahl was quoted as saying at the New York workshop, “I was thrilled to hear not only a stunning piece of music, but a well thought-out treatment for an opera version of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’ I was beginning to think no one was capable of capturing the spirit and magic of Roald’s original. I can sense something very special is being created here.”

Members of the St. Louis cast, led by Daniel Okulitch as Willy Wonka, will reprise the roles in Atlanta. A boy soprano (to be announced) will sing Charlie, and composer Ash will conduct a revival of the St. Louis production, again directed by James Robinson.

That production, says Hanthorn, couldn’t repeat the movie set but “uses video productions that get into the minds of readers and recall the movie.” In the pit, the “orchestra is chamber-sized but makes a very full sound.”

Reviewing for the Financial Times, George Loomis notes that “though not widely known, the American composer Ash has produced a fun-filled score with a zippy, contemporary ambience that makes room for a tune or two you can remember and deft allusions to past operas — the child Augustus Gloop [a tenor] in an emotional moment briefly adopts a Puccinian air. And the music takes on an appealing note of sentiment when Wonka names Charlie as his business successor.”

Atlanta Opera’s 2011-12 season will begin with Donizetti’s bel canto masterpiece “Lucia di Lammermoor,” where the heroine is forced to marry a man she doesn’t love, decides to terminate the marriage and flees the nuptial bed in her bloodied wedding dress. Her celebrated mad scene, just a soprano and flute in kaleidoscopic harmony, depicts a psyche damaged beyond repair. The company last performed “Lucia” in 2000.

Coloratura soprano Georgia Jarman, who sang a sparkling Musetta with the Atlanta Symphony a few years ago, will make her Atlanta Opera debut in the title role. Tenor Jonathan Boyd will sing the good-guy lover and Stephen Powell the bad-guy brother. They, too, will be making company debuts. Tomer Zvulun, a frequent stage director with the opera, will return to produce this “Lucia.”

The season will end with Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” running April 28 through May 6, 2012 — another dark tale of a twisted psyche, last performed here in 2005. A Spanish nobleman, Don Giovanni is a full-time seducer, wooing women with song and then not taking “no” for an answer. His catalog of conquests, when the opera opens, stands at 1,003. (Curiously, unsettlingly, Don Giovanni’s vocal range is exactly the same as Willy Wonka’s!)

Except for light tenor Nicholas Phan, as Don Ottavio, most of the cast will be making company debuts and are unknown in these parts: Andrea Concetti as the wicked Giovanni, Eduardo Chama as his sidekick Leporello, Andrew Kroes as the stone-guest Commendatore, Lori Guilbeau as Anna, Maria Luigia Borsi as Elvira and Angela Kloc as Zerlina.

Atlanta Opera Music Director Arthur Fagen will return to conduct both the Donizetti and the Mozart.

The current season continues with the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” (February 26-March 6) and Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” (April 9-17).

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