CARLISLE FLOYD: Prince of Players (complete opera) – Kate Royal (“Peg” Hughes)/ Rena Harms (Nell Gwynn)/ Chad Shelton (King Charles II)/ Frank Kelley (Sir Charles Sedley)/ Val Rideout (Villiers, Duke of Buckingham)/ Keith Phares (Edward Kynaston)/ Alexander Dobson (Thomas Betterton)/ Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Florentine Opera Chorus/ William Boggs – Reference Recordings FR-736 [2 CDs], 96 minutes *****:
When one thinks of Verdi composing Falstaff at the age of 80, one indeed marvels at the deed. In fact, the older I get the more amazed I am at such artistic, and it must be said, physical feats. Such quality at such an age will always be remarked upon. And yet, having heard Carlisle Floyd’s thirteenth opera, at the age of 92 (okay, to be fair to Verdi the first version was written in 2011 when he was only 84), and having just turned 94, Floyd might be forgiven if he uttered to Verdi what Justinian the Great said at the completion of the massive church of Hagia Sophia, then the largest building in the world: Solomon, I have outdone thee! I won’t take this any further as the ghost of Elliot Carter hovers around the age debate, but the point is made.
Floyd, most famous for his 1955 opera Susannah, after having seen a movie called Stage Beauty based on Jeffrey Hatcher’s play The Compleat Stage Beauty (1999), decided that the action and emotional content of the play was ripe for the operatic picking, and also straight up the composer’s alley. By 2016 the Houston Grand Opera was performing the work, a chamber opera, but a friend observed that the piece would be better realized as a full grand opera with “world class singers.” Two years later the Milwaukee Symphony and Florentine Opera took up the work, and here we are.
The plot is relatively simple yet full of interpersonal intricacies. Edward Kynaston (ca. 1640-1712), an actor of Stuart era, reaches a crisis in his famous career. He is best known for his impersonation of female characters (women were not allowed on the stage at that point), yet the mistress of King Charles II wants to become an actress, and the beguiled king decides to change the custom. Margaret (“Peg”) Hughes, very familiar with Kynaston’s art (and his dresser), now sees a chance to get on stage herself, and though she admires his abilities greatly, feels that she might be better able to portray a woman, since she is, after all, one of them. Kynaston, though a bit hurt by this, agrees to help her prepare for the role of Desdemona. On top of a this, his lover, Villiers, decides to break the relationship as he is getting married into a “distinguished” family and needs no hint of scandal, a devastating moment for Kynaston. In the course of the action we get to hear two different Othellos, one with Kynaston playing Desdemona, and the other when he retreats to the lead role itself, each with wildly different music, a testament to Floyd’s acute sense of dramatic impetus and a marvelous ability to impart emotive resonance into Kynaston’s complex feelings at any one time.
There are too many interwoven character threads to be discussed here. Despite the personal interactions all through the piece, and Floyd’s intrepid adeptness at using a wide aural palette vis-à-vis the multitudinous musical influences that have always been his hallmark, the logic and structural efficiencies linking the various acts and scenes make for a quickly moving and never-dull operatic experience. All the singers are never less than excellent, with Keith Phares and Alexander Dobson especially nuanced in their approach to their complicated characters. The wonderful Kate Royal, one of my favorites, shows a little wobble in some of her lines, but honestly, I am not sure that any soprano could negotiate some of the trickier moments of Floyd’s often challenging vocal writing any better than she. The engineers have captured the performance very well, though occasionally you will hear some audience laughter, and the sound measures up to the Reference Recording standard. Back in 2016 I relished the release of Floyd’s Wuthering Heights in SACD on this same label (it was multichannel disc of the month in August), and while this one is not Super Audio, the whole project radiates professionalism and competence. Bravo to all, and kudos to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s superb playing under the direction of William Boggs. An important release.