New Opera both elegant and rowdy at Present Music
Henceforward, when I hear the word “pandemonium,” I will think of this: The Greek sub-god Pan, in the person of soprano Jennifer Goltz, leading the rave-up to an orgiastic climax as crazed and hair-raising as anything I’ve heard in all of opera.
The occasion, in the real world, was the premiere of Kamran Ince’s The Judgment of Midas, given in concert form Friday by an expanded Present Music ensemble, six superb guest singers, a chorus of nine and five players of traditional Turkish instruments. The occasion, in the plot of the opera and ancient myth, is an epic musical contest between Pan and Apollo (baritone Phillip Horst). The mountain god Tmolus (bass Mikhail Svetlov) judges the contest. Pan partisan Midas (tenor Matthew DiBattista) and tourists Franny (mezzo Abigail Fischer) and Theo (baritone Gregory Gerbrandt), who have somehow tumbled in from the 21st century, witness the spectacle and sometimes enter the fray. The composer conducted them all with searing intensity.
When the climax subsides, tourist Franny has a dazed little exchange (it made me think of this Woody Allen moment) that shows Pan has left her so wrecked she can’t remember her own name, much less that of boyfriend Theo.
But here’s the kicker: After all that, Pan loses, at least on the official, contested ballot.
Horst/Apollo makes a strong case in an answering aria about order and clarity, about music as the bearer not only of wild dancing and unharnessed pleasure, but also of the light of reason. Upon hearing this, Franny recovers her rational awareness and reconciles with Theo in a touching duet. Franny, you see, sings pop music; Theo is a composer of the serialist persuasion. So Judgment of Midas turns out to have some relationship issues stirred into its age-old battle of Classicism vs. Romanticism, the intellectual/spiritual vs. the expressive/carnal. When Franny and Theo reconcile, so do the Classic and Romantic.
Ince did not waste the obvious compositional possibilities attached to characters who are so much about music. Twelve-tone rows snake through the orchestra when Theo/Gerbrandt carries on in 20th-century arioso style. Pan’s music swings a little, at first; it’s fun and playful. But it becomes increasingly driving as the exchanges with Apollo escalate, and finally goes over the edge in that demonic pandemonium.
Ince’s Apollo rides in on a shimmer of clear, major harmony; “He sure knows how to make an entrance,” cracks Franny. Apollo begins with elegant, declamatory music with noble, direct harmonies — even though he opens by bragging about his many sexual conquests. His iterations grow more serious and serene in text and evolve into an idiom rather like the meditative Sufi music of the Whirling Dervishes. The Turkish musicians accompany his crucial third aria, the one that brings Franny back to herself, and a very rational canon plays out between Apollo and the chorus.
Unlike many newer operas, Judgment of Midas has real arias; it’s almost a numbers opera. You don’t come out humming the tunes because they aren’t repetitive enough to stick. But Ince gives his singers compelling melodies that show off their voices and express the moment, notably in DiBattista’s soaring declaration of devotion to Pan; in Goltz’s teasing, bluesy note-bending dissing of Apollo; and in Apollo’s golden redemptive hymn.
Ince’s harmonies, as always, are intuitive plays of conventional triads ranging from pristine to covered with “dirt,” as the composer refers to the dissonant notes he imposes on them. Well thought-out bass lines, rather than functional chords, drive the music forward and create a sense of shifting levels. A long, step-wise ascent of tonal levels gave the pandemonium an ominous sense of good times turning reckless and then sinister, in the way of an ever more drunken party.
Musically, though, melody and harmony rank behind Ince’s fabulous orchestral color. I’ve heard virtually everything Ince has written in more than two decades, and his palette here exceeds all else. This composer’s limitless sonic imagination has wrought one amazement after another.
Librettist Miriam Seidel gave Ince an ideal platform for his style. Seidel also gave her characters marvelously witty lines, most of them legible without a glance at the supertitles.
Judgment of Midas is an ardent love letter to music, but Seidel’s words bear that love lightly. Thanks to her, this is a essentially a comic opera. The singers understood that and, under the direction of Jill Anna Ponasik, slyly played the relationships from their perches in front of the orchestra. Smiles abounded in the UWM Zelazo Center and laughter broke out frequently. Fischer, as Franny, got most of the good punch lines and she knew what to do with them.
The Zelazo Center is a difficult hall acoustically for large ensembles. On a few occasions, the orchestra covered the singers, but the balances were generally good. Jason Fassl’s smart lighting warmed up the place, set moods, and now and then commented on the action. You don’t get a 1960s psychedelic light show in just any opera.
All of this effort made Judgment of Midas work as a concert performance with some extra bells and whistles and made it look stageworthy as a full production. I can see it in a Neo-Baroque staging, with Apollo as the sun riding a cloud down to Mt. Tmolus. As Franny says, “He does know how to make an entrance.”
Judgment of Midas will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 13, at the UWM Helene Zelazo Center for the Arts, 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd. Tickets are $15-$30, call Present Music, 414 271-0711, Ext. 5, or visit Present Music’s website.