April 12, 13, 2013 (premiere of concert version)
Present Music, Milwaukee Opera Theatre
Kamran Ince, conductor
Helene Zelazo Center for the Arts
mezzo soprano, tenor, coloratura soprano, tenor, two baritones, two basses
kemence, ney, tambur, kanun, baglama (Turkish instruments)
JUDGMENT OF MIDAS
An opera in Two Acts
Melik, a Turkish tour guide, with a somewhat regal bearing, escorts the tourists, Franny and Theo, two musicians in love, into the archaeological site Sardis, the ruined capital of ancient Lydia. The lovers are distracted and quarrel, but Melik, a passionate guide, describes in detail the mythic history of the site. Strange music arises. Franny, angry and impatient with Theo, runs off towards the music.
Franny magically enters a ruined mosaic depicting the players in an ancient music contest. Inside the mosaic the trees, nymphs and hills are alive with the sound of music. Franny spies Melik, transformed into King Midas, who grovels at the feet of Pan, the ancient god of the forest. Midas praises Pan's pipes, represented by Turkish folk instruments in the orchestra, exclaiming that Pan is by far the best musician, better even than the god Apollo. Pan is flattered and bursts into song and awakens the nearby god of the mountain, Tmolus. Tmolus, in grumpy mood, proposes to judge a godly singing contest, Pan versus Apollo. Pan accepts. Theo enters the scene, too, and everyone is in awe at the entrance of golden sun god Apollo. The rules of the contest are laid down by Tmolus, and all are full of excitement and anticipation for the contest they are to witness.
The Contest: Pan and Apollo begin their musical duel, enthralling everyone and everything…Midas and Franny are transported by Pan and his swirling, wild beat and Theo is mesmerized by the cool, airy perfection of Apollo's harmonies. Franny ignores Theo as frenzied PANdemonium erupts. She faints. Apollo's music, with its deep spirituality, order, and concentred movements of its whirling dervishes-like dancing bring back the lovers to their senses.
The Judgment: Tmolus proclaims Apollo the winner of the contest. Midas objects and demands a recount. Tmolus scoffs… "One Judge, one vote, I vote for him," and Apollo gets the laurel. Midas protests that Pan's music will always be more powerful and intoxicating than Apollo's. Apollo tells Midas he has the ears of an ass and with a gesture makes it so. The nymphs sway in sympathy with Midas' suffering as his huge, furry ears weigh down his head. Pleased with themselves Apollo and Tmolus disappear; Pan exits complaining he never gets any respect.
Midas, deformed and despondent, watches Theo and Franny, who are back in love, understanding each other now more than ever. As the poor old man observes their canoodling, the forest starts to murmur with approval, Midas realizes that he is hearing the natural world around him in greater detail than ever before-his hearing enhanced by his oversized donkey ears. “My ears - they are those of the Gods!” Franny and Theo swear to listen to each other in new ways, too, and along with Midas, now boasting of his new found gift, re-enter the ruin of Sardis by passing through the mosaic.
Tom Strini, ThirdCostDaily.com
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.
Ince, a Turkish-American composer, is fond of metal percussion, high chiming effects on piano and high shrieks from strings and woodwinds. The pandemonium rises to a clanging, banging, clattering, all-consuming roar as sensual and exciting as it is noisy. The incredible Goltz rose above it all in both pitch and volume. (How high was that exactly? High E? Inquiring minds who lack perfect pitch want to know.)
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.”