Review: LOTNY Premieres Carlisle Floyd’s Masterful ‘Prince of Players’
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, February 24, 2017
Carlisle Floyd’s latest opera Prince of Players had what Opera News called an “intimate, moving” premiere performance last March in the 1100-seat Cullen Theater at Houston’s Wortham Theater Center, produced by Floyd’s longtime collaborators at Houston Grand Opera. A second production, by the Little Opera Theatre of New York, just opened for a limited run in the 624-seat Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, and therein lies the rub: a sophisticated backstage drama that’s all about gender-roles and personal growth, as expressed through a complex aesthetic debate over certain moral dimensions of performance-style, paradoxically loses all sense of intimacy when performed in a small, bright house that favors the pit.
In the Kaye’s acoustic, Floyd’s delicate chamber-orchestration was nearly overwhelming, and the singers either had to work at full throttle or not be heard clearly—or, if they were more than a dozen feet or so upstage, not be heard at all. It’s a real pity, and I hope it’s something they can work out in the course of the run, because there’s plainly a rattling good show in there.
Floyd has written his own libretto, as is his practice, working from Jeffrey Hatcher’s play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, perhaps better known in an excellent film adaptation starring Billy Crudup and Claire Danes. The story focuses on the Seventeenth-Century English actor Edward Kynaston, famous for his performances of Shakespeare’s female characters, and on Kynaston’s struggles to adapt to the paradigm-shift mandated by Charles II, whereby female characters must always be played by women, among whom are Charles’s mistress Nell Gwynn, and Kynaston’s ambitious dresser Margaret Hughes. (Think All About Eve crossed with Noises Off, with a dash of polymorphous romantic interest and three different takes on the final scene of Othello. Add music and stir. It’s a potent mix.)
Musically, it’s short and punchy—barely two hours, including intermission—and the theatrical scenes are truly exciting, with a virtuoso mix of speech, recitative, arioso, and extended declamation. This requires tremendous variety and quicksilver shading from the singers, who have to run the gamut from casual conversation, to Broadway-style specialty-numbers and rowdy ensembles, to grandes tirades in the High Restoration style, to naturalistic physical combat that’s persuasive enough to scare the pants off the audience onstage and simultaneously thrill the audience in the house. In the event, for whatever reason, the actual expressive range was narrow: throwaways like “How are you, Ned?” sounded like Sibylline prophecies, while a gloriously smutty tavern-song, played far upstage to accommodate the full ensemble, was almost incomprehensible.
The principals came and went—Maeve Högland’s Margaret floated some beautiful high notes, but seemed to be pushing harder, earlier, than the role required, while Michael Kelly pulled off a truly alarming Othello in the final scene, but never hinted at the qualities that made Kynaston “the most beautiful woman—and the most beautiful man—in London.” Only Sharin Apostolou, as Nell Gwynn, was consistently audible (although not entirely intelligible), consistently musical, and consistently in character: her bombastic, borderline-incompetent audition-piece was all the more hilarious for being carefully studied and horribly sincere. Apostolou’s credits include Eliza Doolittle and Nellie Forbush, and the experience shows.
The orchestration—strings, winds in pairs, piccolo, bass clarinet, English horn, two trumpets used sparingly, light percussion, and harp—is probably lovely and quite telling, but at the Kaye, nearly everything was too loud. The only exception was a beautiful interlude in Act Two, mostly for divided strings, which showed what could be done.
Floyd, who turns ninety-one this year, is a master at what he does. Prince of Players will probably have a long and happy life. I look forward to hearing it again.
Prince of Players produced by the Little Opera Theatre of New York at the Kaye Playhouse through February 26 (seen on February 23, 2017). Music and libretto by Carlisle Floyd. Conducted by Richard Cordova; directed by Philip Schneidman; sets by Neil Patel and Cate McCrea; costume design by Lara De Bruijn; lighting design by Nick Solyom. Opening night cast (different principals play February 24 and 26): Michael Kelly (Edward Kynaston); Maeve Högland (Margaret Hughes); Ron Loyd (Thomas Betterton); Bray Wilkins (Villiers); Raùl Melo (Sir Charles Sedley); Marc Schreiner (Charles II); Sharin Apostolou (Nell Gwynn); Jane Shaulis (Mistress Revels); Elizabeth Pojanowski (Lady Meresvale); Heather Hill (Miss Frayne); Daniel Klein (Hyde); Oswaldo Iraheta (Male Emilia); Sahoko Sato Timpone (Female Emilia); Kyle Guglielmo (Stagehand); Hunter Hoffman (Samuel Pepys).
Cover: (foreground) Maeve Höglund (Margaret Hughes) and Michael Kelly (Edward Kynaston) while Kyle Guglielmo (Stagehand) and Sahoko Sato Timpone (Emilia) look on in Prince of Players;’ photo: Tina Buchman