Carlisle Floyd’s Prince of Players was originally written for the Opera Studio in Houston as a chamber work. It was subsequently reworked as a full scale piece and taken up by Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera where it was performed and recorded in 2018. It’s a two act piece with a libretto by the composer that deals with the transition from men playing women on stage to the roles being taken by women for the first time in the reign of Charles II. It’s framed by the final scene of Shakespeare’s Othello. First time around Desdemona is played by noted actor Ned Kynaston to rapturous applause and praise from the king. The rest of the first act is the story of how Charles; influenced by his mistress and aspiring actor Nell Gwynn and the much more talented Meg Hughes who, to complicate matters, is Kynaston’s dresser and secretly in love with him, decides that times must change and women must play women on the stage. The act culminates in a confrontation between the king and Kynaston where the latter accuses the former of destroying his art and livelihood and the theatre with it. The king is unrelenting. This act is tight and well crafted with quite a lot of humour as well as some pathos.
Things get much more intense in Act 2. It becomes a work of real dramatic substance as we see Kynaston’s disintegration in which he’s reduced to doing a lewd drag queen act in a sleazy tavern before being beaten up by hired thugs. Then comes redemption. There’s a major scene between Hughes and Kynaston where she despairs of playing parts the way she learned from Kynaston because no woman behaves like his characters do. He urges her to a more personal and naturalistic style which leads to the finale where Hughes insists on having Kynaston as her Othello in a command performance. They produce a final scene of an intensity not previously seen in the English theatre to a rapturous reception. This second act is beautifully conceived and timed and is really very moving.
Floyd’s music is what he’s been writing for opera all his career. It’s colourful and atmospheric with considerable melodic invention and a judicious use of dissonance. Here he also uses elements of parody where it fits the story. Nell Gwynn, for example, gets a folk song to sing in her audition for theatre manager Thomas Betterton. It all works well with the story and the overall impression is of a very well crafted piece musically and dramatically.
Performances are very good. There is excellent chemistry between Kynaston, sung by baritone Keith Phares and Hughes sung by British soprano Kate Royal. His lyric baritone works well with her bright soprano. There are some excellent cameos. Alexander Dobson brings a darker sound than Phares to the role of Betterton and Chad Shelton makes the most of some pretty good opportunities as Charles II. I wasn’t so sure about Rena Harma as Nell Gwynn. She performs in a sort of stage cockney that doesn’t quite work for me. Everybody else is using stage British English and though diction is excellent only Dobson and Royal sound entirely at home in it. The Milwaukee Symphony seem entirely at home with Floyd’s music and William Boggs co-ordinates stage and pit effectively.
The recording was made live in Uihlein Hall at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in Milwaukee. It’s very transparent and well balanced. There is generous documentation including a full libretto though there are only occasional points where it’s needed.
This is a new opera of real substance. It combines accessibility with substantial musical and dramatic depth. The recording does it justice and is highly recommendable.
Catalogue number: Fresh! FR-736
This review first appeared in the Summer 200 edition of Opera Canada.