Carlisle Floyd‘s new comic opera Prince of Players magically transports us to Restoration England on the wings of 20th/21st-century musical idioms. The nonagenarian composer-librettist deploys his expansive talents with wicked surety and infectious joy. In attendance at the same little OPERA theatre of ny performance I saw last week at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse (the production ran Feb. 23-26), Floyd witnessed an accomplished, committed cast and crew led by director Philip Shneidman present his latest creation with colorful vision and glowing talent.
It’s 1661, and King Charles II is overseeing big political and cultural changes in Albion. Edward (Ned) Kynaston, celebrated for portraying Shakespeare’s female roles, rules the stage. Loved by audiences, pursued by groupies, and highly valued by his theater’s manager Thomas Betterton, the haughty thespian is attended by Margaret (Peg) Hughes, his dresser. Secretly in love with him, she is also a talented aspiring performer at a time when women are forbidden from acting in the legitimate theater – until King Charles upends that rule. Suddenly Peg becomes a rising star and Ned must learn to take on masculine roles or kiss his career – and his lover, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham – goodbye.
Carlisle based the opera on Jeffrey Hatcher’s book Compleat Female Stage Beauty, which also inspired the 2004 film Stage Beauty starring Billy Crudup and Claire Danes and was in turn based on real people and events. But the fun he has with the story is original, and operatic to the core.
Two performers alternated in each of the main roles. In the role of Kynaston I saw baritone Shea Owens, whose acting ability matched the impressive strength he displayed in each part of his range. His Kynaston was a well-rounded portrait of a man we could sympathize with even while we winced at his childishness and the inconsiderate, even cruel edge he could present – as when, pretending to be a female prostitute, he pointlessly embarrasses the brutish Sir Charles Sedley (an effectively gruff Neal Harrelson). On the flip side, Kynaston’s first halting attempts at reading a male role rang painfully true, and when he loves, he loves devotedly.
Soprano Jessica Sandidge was an equally three-dimensional presence, marshaling a gorgeous tone and an exquisitely controlled quiet register as the lovelorn but resourceful proto-feminist Margaret, “resigned to worship him from the wings” but meanwhile learning every one of Ned’s lines (Desdemona is the role featured here): “I know your every gesture.” Dressing Ned’s wounds to the strains of the oboe after Sedley’s thugs beat him up, she opens her heart to us even as he remains cool to her.
Hilary Ginther, Michelle Trovato, and Sharin Apostolou sang with just the right raw energy in mostly comedic roles, Ms. Apostolou delivering a brilliantly bad audition number. Jane Shaulis led a hilarious bawdy number in a tavern where out-of-work Ned winds up performing before his professional rehabilitation. Matthew Curran was strong-voiced, stately, and convincingly sincere as Betterton, Nicholas Simpson just hammy enough as the King.
Throughout, the music mixes modernist dissonance with classic lyricism, a recipe that Floyd has mastered and fine-tuned perhaps better than any other composer. I enjoyed the instrumental pieces as much as the arias, especially the richly melodic love theme and the semi-dissonant passacaglia that animated the courtly dance scene. The necessarily economic staging was no hindrance to a full sonic and visual experience. The expert orchestra conducted by Richard Cordova included the members of Sybarite5; Lara De Bruihn and Rachel Padula Shufelt provided sumptuous costumes and boffo wigs respectively; and Nick Solyom’s clever lighting enlivened the simple, effective sets by Neil Patel and Cate McCrea.
It was a production worthy of the material, and the material is lovely, sophisticated and fun. With Floyd entering his 10th decade, who can say how much remains in the composer-librettist’s arsenal? But after seeing this delicious production, I don’t see any reason Prince of Players shouldn’t go on to as much success as his oft-staged Susannah.