A new family-friendly opera and Sondheim’s evergreen Night Music more than compensate for uneven Mozart in St Louis

June 19, 2010
By George Loomis

Writing an opera on spec is a risky proposition for obvious reasons, but it worked out handsomely for composer Peter Ash, even if the rewards were slow in coming. He had a preliminary version of The Golden Ticket, his operatic incarnation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, ready as long ago as a decade but its official world premiere occurred only this month at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. The interim brought a period of revision, workshopping and finding support, during which time the opera picked up admirers, including conductor Simon Rattle, director Trevor Nunn and baritone Gerald Finley. Judging from the June 16 performance, their faith in The Golden Ticket was not misplaced.

The Golden Ticket’s appeal as a family opera will rest crucially on the affection youngsters already have for Dahl’s story about five children who gain access to the legendary Willy Wonka’s confectionery establishment after finding golden tickets in their chocolates. But adults are likely to find The Golden Ticket no less childish than Siegfried. The important thing is that Ash, an Iowa native also active as a conductor, has produced a real opera with an upbeat, melodically appealing, contemporary score, yet it doesn’t play down to its audience.

The largely expository first act introduces the lucky children, who instantly become media darlings, but the fun really begins – and the dramatic tempo accelerates – in Act 2 when they go through a series of trials that only Charlie survives. Apart from Charlie, the children are played by adults, with each such child quickly establishing objectionable qualities en route to his or her elimination. Augustus Gloop falls into a veritable stream of flowing chocolate, cleverly depicted by Bruno Schwengl’s cartoonishly fanciful sets. Violet Beauregard overdoses on chewing gum replicating a three-course-meal (including soup).

Ash’s musical allusions to other operas are clever while not overly obvious. When a foodstuff called called Turkish Delight turns up, I detected a hint not just of Turkish music but of Mozart’s Turkish music. At an emotionally fraught moment, Augustus Gloop (stentorianly sung by tenor Andrew Drost) adopts Puccini-like mannerisms. And I even detected a hint of Stravinsky. In addition, the music takes on an appealing note of sentiment when, after Wonka names Charlie as his business successor, Ash develops a tune that includes a two-note figure to which the name “Charlie” is often sung.

Boy soprano Michael Kepler Meo sings Charlie with due innocence, and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch is imposing as the authoritative Wonka. Others in the uniformly strong cast include Tracy Dahl, whose coloratura soprano proves ideal for Violet’s outbursts, Jennifer Rivera, in lustrous voice as the spoiled teenager Veruca Salt, David Kravitz, as her indulgent father, and Frank Kelly, as Charlie’s Grandpa Joe. Timothy Redmond conducts with a verve that matches James Robinson’s energetic staging, with Martin Pakledinaz’s colourfully inventive costumes nicely complementing Schwengl’s sets. The Golden Ticket is seen in a co-production with American Lyric Theater and Wexford Festival Opera, which takes it up in October.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis scored another solid success with Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, which marked the directorial debut of fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, who also – no surprise – designed the sets and costumes. Although Night Music perhaps works best with a revolving stage capable of suggesting its various urban and country venues, Mizrahi conjured up an enchanting woodland setting with a grassy floor, trees in a variety of sizes and a sky-blue background suggestive of a long Swedish summer night. Thanks to some shuffling about of furniture, it works nicely for the non-country scenes, even though it is a little incongruous to have people singing about the prospect of a weekend in the country, during the big Act 1 finale, when they are apparently already there. In this complex number, Mizrahi handles stage traffic adroitly and elsewhere he shows an understanding of the work’s emotional subtleties. Boosting the enchanting effect of the set, he has some members of the quintet of singers that enhance several scenes sport fairy wings, thereby stressing the musical’s affinities with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The performance on June 15 came a day after Francesca Zambello, the incoming director of Glimmerglass Opera, announced that she would do one classic Broadway musical there each season without amplification, “as intended”. In principle, one could regret that Saint Louis did not take a similar approach, but practicalities dictated otherwise given the cast, and the cast is hard to fault. Despite her extensive Broadway experience, Academy Award nominee Amy Irving had never before appeared in a musical. She offers an accomplished, if somewhat reticent, portrayal of the actress Desiree Armfeldt that rightly reaches a high point with her poignant rendering of ‘Send in the Clowns’, sung with appealing tone and every word invested with feeling. Another acclaimed actress, the magisterial Siân Phillips, takes the part of Madame Armfelt, bringing a wistful feeling of regret to her song ‘Liaisons’, and investing her Lady Bracknell-like pronouncements with a sense of hauteur that seemed entirely natural. (“To lose a lover or even a husband or two during the course of one’s life can be vexing, but to lose one’s teeth is a catastrophe.)

Ron Raines, equally at home as an actor and an opera singer, gives a fine performance as Desiree’s former lover Fredrik right from his early patter song, when he contemplates taking his sexually cool wife Anne (sung alluringly by Amanda Sqitieri) by force. Lee Gregory brings a ramrod military posture and a handsome baritone to Desiree’s current lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, and another baritone, Christopher Dylan Herbert, mopes appealingly as Fredrik’s son Henrik. Candra Savage gives a lusty performance as the maid Petra, making a fine moment of account of ‘I shall marry the miller’s son’. The members of the excellent quintet, all participants in the company’s young artists’ program, deserve mention: Aaron Agulay, Lauren Jelencovich, Corine Winters, Mark Van Arsdale and Laura Wilde. Stephen Lord’s conducting has the score’s many waltz rhythms lilting nicely.

Act 4 of The Marriage of Figaro (seen at the June 16 matinee) also finds couples scampering about in an outdoor nocturnal setting. Director Robinson handles the action smoothly but there are some bumpy moments getting there. Designer Schwengl’s sets, while generally attractive, absurdly have Susanna and Figaro’s bed consist of a huge stack of mattresses as if the opera were not Figaro but The Princess and the Pea. Worse comes in Act 2 when the Countess sings ‘Porgi, Amor’ in her underwear, complete with a hoop but no skirt. Highly embarrassing. She eventually puts on some clothes but her unflattering wig remains steadfastly in place throughout the whole opera.

Fortunately, Amanda Majeski’ Countess is worth listening to and includes an affecting, warmly voiced ‘Dove sono’, whose only shorcoming was a shortage of dynamic contrast. Maria Kanyova, in resonant voice, contributes a sparkling, peppy Susanna. The male roles, including Cherubino, fare less well. As the page, Jamie Van Eyck’s rather wiry voice lacks the right youthful bloom for the part and her unflattering costume resembles pajamas. Edward Parks sings respectably as the Count but his performance needs more dramatic focus. Christopher Feigum’s voice is too light for Figaro, but he proves an engaging performer and makes words tell. (Andrew Porter’s translation is used.) Two members of the company’s young artists’ program show promise in smaller roles, Bradley Smoak, as Antonio, and Elizabeth Zharoff, as Barbarina, although her ‘Lo perduto’ lacked delicacy. Conductor Lord presides over a stylish account of the score, which unfortunately follows the discredited Moberly-Raeburn rearrangement of Act 3.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s fourth offering of its current festival season is Eugene Onegin in a production by Kevin Newbury with Dina Kuznetsova and Christopher Magiera in the leading roles, David Agler conducting.

The 2010 season continues until June 27. See: www.opera-stl.org

Photo: Daniel Okulitch

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