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Order v. Chaos
A theatrical adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse and a world premiere of a contemporary opera. Heady days for the arts in these parts.

Matt Daniels, Chase Stoeger and Matt Koester in Chamber Theatre's "Jeeves in Bloom."
hoto by Mark Frohna)

I expected a lot of things from Present Music’s world premiere of Kamran Ince’s opera The Judgment of Midas: A compelling story rooted in mythology, but glancing toward contemporary life. A rich and eclectic musical style—Ince’s trademark blend of world and western classical traditions that is inventive yet accessible and emotionally rich. And a big, richly imagined production—the semi-staged opera was the Big Event of this Present Music season (it was coproduced by Milwaukee Opera Theatre and UWM’s Peck School of the Arts).

But I didn’t quite expect to laugh so much.

Ince and librettist Miriam Seidel spin this story from the legend of a mythological song contest, reputedly held on Mount Tmolus in Turkey (the opera was commissioned by Dr. Crawford Greenewalt, Jr., to celebrate the anniversary of archeological digs in the area). Here an out-of-sorts couple is touring the ruins, and finds themselves witness to an epic musical battle between Pan and Apollo.

But not before they have their own little contretemps—a sort of Donny & Marie, “little bit country” vs. “a little bit rock ‘n’ roll’ thing. Franny (Abigail Fischer) is a pop singer with a spirit of adventure and curiosity. Theo (Gregory Gerbrandt) is a serious “formalist” composer who has a hard time getting his head out of his twelve tones. And their musical preferences spill over into their emotional life. In the first scene, we’re treated to “you never listen to me” bickering that takes on a more abstract meaning when it’s between two musicians. And it takes on a personal power when Ince let’s the final word of her aria—“alone”—echo several times through an expanse of silence.

But the fun really starts when the couple finds themselves witness to the legendary contest. Their tour guide has become Midas (tenor Matthew DeBattista), who is a sort of emcee. And he summons Tmolous, the god of the mountain to judge (bass Mikhail Svetlov, whose voice is about as mountainous as they come). And Apollo (Phillip Horst) and Pan (Jennifer Goltz) make their entrances.

Both the gods dig into their roles dramatically as well as musically. As Pan, Goltz is impish and occasionally pouty. And her musical adversary is appropriately full of himself. Musically, Ince sets them apart with wildly disparate styles. Pan’s lines swoop over wide intervals, sometimes sliding between notes and embracing that kind of crazy rhythm one might associate with the god of the wilderness. One section uses a whirling orchestra to suggest an almost Sufi-like transcendence. Apollo, by contrast, is about majestic, tightly controlled lines, clustered closely together. Ince gets the full effect of the large present music ensemble as Apollo makes his lyrical case as the Olympian Idol.

In the end, the story circles back to the mortals. (Spoiler alert: Apollo wins.) And in the argument between Midas (who’s a Pan fan to the core) and Tmolous, the opera’s non-too-subtle musical message emerges. Music should embrace both the Apollonian and the, um, “Pan-amanian” in equal measure. Our mortal couple learn their lesson well, vowing to listen to each other, even though they come from opposite ends of the aesthetic rainbow.

But if the story turns out to be more Oprah than Oedipus, there is nothing ordinary about Ince’s music. In some passages, he stages a call-and-response between a quintet of traditional Arabic instruments and the full ensemble—to spectacular effect. He sets up separate male and female choruses as both atmosphere and cheering sections, and uses them to great effect. It’s a rich and rewarding tapestry of accessible yet inventive music.

* * *

There’s also a battle between chaos and order in the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Jeeves in Bloom, Margaret Raether’s play drawn from several of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories. Wodehouse is in the news lately thanks to the recent publication of his letters, and the airing of a BBC series that chronicles his arguably less-than-noble behavior during the Nazi occupation of France, where he lived off-and-on.

His creations, however, should always be the stuff of front pages. His knack for comic characters is first rate, his facility with the language is peerless. Along with Oscar Wilde and Kingley Amis, he is in the pantheon of quintessential British wits.

For me, Wodehouse is best experienced sentence by sentence on the page (or in a great recording of the original stories—I recommend those by Martin Jarvis). He’s great fun on stage as well, but to fill that less intimate space, Raether has to broaden things a bit. To Wodehouse aficionados, Jeeves in Bloom has more hiding behind shrubbery than you might expect—not to mention a few slapstick bits that seem right out of The Three Stooges. But director Tami Workentin and her actors make it work by putting Wodehouse’s comic characters front and center.

And what characters they are. Gussy Fink-Nottle (Matt Koester) is quite fond of starry-eyed Madeline Basset (Karen Estrada, showing again why she’s one of the most talented comedic actors around town), but his true love is his amphibian newts, which he collects and coddles. Dahlia Travers (Marcy Kearns) is Bertie Wooster’s blunderbuss of an aunt, and her husband Thomas (Norman Moses) wields a blunderbuss (an elephant gun actually) to keep lackabouts away from his roses. And the Travers’ French chef, Anatole (also played with fire-eyed comic intensity by Moses), struggles with his English, leading to some of the evening’s best “how-you-say?” one-liners.

At the center of the story, of course, is Wooster and Jeeves. Chase Stoeger’s Wooster is sunny, animated and dim-witted, just like the Wodehouse ordered. And Matt Daniels, reprising his role of Jeeves from MCT’s 2010 production of Jeeves Intervenes, turns in another solid comic performance--the still, rational center around which the chaos revolves. Physically, Daniels moves around the stage with stealth and elegance, appearing magically at the right place and time to catch a tossed-aside dinner napkin or supply a cocktail just as the desire for it crosses a character’s mind. His speech is soothingly smooth, but as precise and clipped as a field corporal in the midst of maneuvers. For readers of Wodehouse, he’s just how you’d expect the hapless butler to sound and carry himself. And for those who just appreciate great theatrical comedy, it’s the perfect cup of tea.

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