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.
Continuing my struggle with Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia I got hold of the Blu-ray recording of Fiona Shaw’s 2015 Glyndebourne production. I’m beginning, I think, to see my way to understanding the problems inherent in the libretto and some of the strategies that can be used to overcome them. The more minor problem is Junius and the odd scene early in Act 2 where he seems to be inciting the Romans to revolt while acting as a general in Tarquinius’ army while, also, apparently, been in some sense complicit in the rape. So we have a two faced power hungry schemer who is oblivious to the consequences of his mischief making; whether rape or rabble rousing (a sort of Roman Boris Johnson). Most productions ignore this aspect of things and probably rightly.
A new recording of Britten’s Gloriana is to be welcomed, even when it’s less than perfect. It’s an unusual work for Britten. It’s very grand. The orchestra is large and the music doesn’t seem to be as transparent and detailed as much of his work. This is especially true in Act 1 where I almost wondered whether Britten was sending up “grand opera”. It’s also a grand opera sort of plot. The libretto is based on Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex and deals with the late life romance between the queen and the young Robert Devereux, earl of Essex and deputy in Ireland. It has some fine moments; notably the lute songs in Act 2 and the choral dances in Act 2. Act 3 is also dramatically quite effective; dealing with Essex’ abortive rebellion and execution. Curiously, in the final scene, Britten resorts to a lot of spoken dialogue, as he does briefly with Balstrode’s admonition in Peter Grimes. It’s almost as if he has no musical vocabulary for the highest emotional states; a sort of anti-Puccini.
It’s hard to fault any aspect of the new recording of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte recorded earlier this year at the Baden-Baden festival. The soloists are consistently good, and in some cases very good indeed, Simon Rattle is in the pit with the Berlin Philharmonic and Robert Carsen’s production is beautiful to look at and thought provoking without being pointlessly provocative. Add to that first rate video direction and superb Blu-ray sound and picture quality and one has a disk that looks competitive even in the very crowded market for Zauberflöte recordings.
Jonathan Kent’s 2010 Glyndebourne production of Don Giovanni has a great cast and high ambitions but, ultimately, doesn’t really come off, largely because the relationships between the characters too often fall short of anything interesting. The concept, as explained in the two short bonus segments, is that Don Giovanni is set in a society in transition and that the title character is a sort of harbinger of the new mores. The “society in transition” chosen by Kent is a sort of hybrid of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the last years of Franco’s regime in Spain. He might have done better to just pick one as the Fellini elements get pretty much reduced to the costumes and the Franco elements really don’t go anywhere.