Carlisle Floyd: Prince of Players
Keith Phares (Edward Kynaston), Kate Royal (Margaret Hughes), Alexander Dobson (Thomas Betterton), Chad Shelton (King Charles II), Frank Kelley (Sir Charles Sedley), Vale Rideout (Villiers, Duke of Buckingham), Nicole Heinen (Miss Frayne), Rena Harms (Nell Gywnn), Briana Moynihan (Lady Meresvale), Sandra Piques Eddy (Mistress Revels), Nathaniel Hill (Hyde), Jessica Schwefel (female Emilia), Nicholas Huff (male Emilia), John A. Stumpff (stagehand), The Florentine Opera and Chorus, Scott S. Stewart (chorus master), Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, William Boggs (conductor)
Recording: Uihlein Hall at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (October 12 and 14, 2018) – 95’41
Reference Recordings FR-736 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English
Composer Carlisle Floyd is among the most distinguished American opera composers of the last century. Floyd’s chamber opera, Prince of Players, about the 17th century gay English actor Edward Kynaston, premiered at The Houston Opera, and the 2018 production by The Florentine Opera is now available on Reference Recordings.
Based on Jeffrey Hatcher’s play The Compleat Stage Beauty, Floyd creates a witty and tragic bio-opera of the actor’s downfall after achieving fame for his riveting performances of female characters. Women were forbidden by law from performing onstage. His fortunes change when Charles II reverses the edict so that women could perform, but men playing women would be banned.
Floyd didn’t know anything about Kynaston; he accidentally came across the film version of Hatcher’s play on cable. Floyd was moved by his life story of a gay man in Renaissance England in an intolerant society and felt it was strong material for opera. And, indeed, the gender-fluid themes certainly resonate today.
The opera opens as Kynaston is playing what will be his final performance as Desdemona in Othello, and the company is preparing for the King to attend a performance. Meanwhile, another drama is looming for the actor when his lover Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, breaks off their affair because there has been gossip about them.
Later, Kynaston helps his replacement perfect her role, admitting that there are things that only a woman can convey as Desdemona. Meanwhile he cannot transition to male roles himself that he learns from coaching her. Act II opens with Kynaston trying to adjust to male roles rehearsing King Lear’s soliloquy. He and his acting partner are not optimistic. Kynaston, wondering how he will be able to earn a living, ends up humiliated as he has to take a job as Lusty Louise, the louche drag act in a local pub, singing with bawdy songs for the drunken rabble. Floyd builds in some orchestral literalness with clamorous passages in the recording as too clever, but it’s easy to imagine how these scenes would play as sharp comic relief on stage.
Afterward, Edward’s lover, Villers, the Duke of Buckingham, summons the actor to his palace and tells him that he can’t see Edward anymore because of gossip about the two men…that he is now getting married and there cannot be “A whiff of scandal…I can’t risk that.” This is Floyd’s most musically heartbreaking scene and Keith Phares and Vale Rideout deliver powerful vocal performances.
Among the outstanding supporting principal cast is Alexander Dobson as stage director Thomas Betterton, Chad Shelton as King Charles, sopranos Kate Royal as Margaret Hughes and Rena Harms captivates as the aspiring actresses who challenges his true understanding of female roles onstage and off.
Not all, but much of the atmospherics come over engagingly on this audio recording. Floyd’s sung dialogue so veers from the hothouse theatrics of actors with such unselfconscious that this period drama becomes naturalistic grand opera.
The Florentine Opera/Milwaukee Symphony production has fuller orchestration which captures the rich detailing. Floyd’s narrative orchestral atmospherics are laced with meditative period mise-en-scènes.
Prince of Players is grand chamber opera that hopefully will see more productions by opera companies in the coming seasons. Meanwhile, composer Floyd’s operatic muses are heard on this recording.
Lewis J. Whittington