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Carlisle FLOYD (b. 1926)
Prince of Players (2013, revised 2016) [95.41]
Keith Phares (baritone) – Edward Kynaston, Kate Royal (soprano) – Margaret Hughes, Alexander Dobson (baritone) – Thomas Betterton, Chad Shelton (tenor) – King Charles II, Frank Kelly (tenor) – Sir Charles Sedley), Vale Rideout (tenor) – Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, Nicole Heinen (soprano) – Miss Frayne, Rena Harms (soprano) – Nell Gwynn, Briana Moynihan (mezzo-soprano) – Lady Meresdale, Sandra Piques Eddy (mezzo-soprano) – Mistress Revels, Nathaniel Hill (baritone) – Hyde, Jessica Schwefel (mezzo-soprano) – Female Emilia, Nicholas Huff (tenor) – Male Emilia, John A Stumpff (tenor) – Stagehand
Florentine Opera Chorus
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra/William Boggs
rec. 2018, Uihlein Hall, Mancus Center, Milwaukee, USA
REFERENCE RECORDINGS FR-736 [41.40 + 54.01]

Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Bronte [review], the Apocrypha, John Steinbeck. These are among the writers who have provided sources for Carlisle Floyd’s 13 operas. Floyd writes his own librettos and many of his operas take place in the American South. However, his most recent opera, Prince of Players, is set in Restoration England, a time and place he makes his own as much as North Carolina or Louisiana.

The opera’s title refers to Edward Kynaston, an actual figure, who was the last English actor to play females roles on the stage. Floyd’s overriding concern in Prince of Players is identity: professional, personal, sexual and, most importantly, artistic, and how all of these can be up-ended by changing times. The story is carried along by Floyd’s well-known mixture of Copland-esque lyricism and well-mediated dissonance. Floyd has always been adept at character portrayal and this is especially well-demonstrated in his portrayal of Kynaston, a man whose whole world changes by the end of the first act.

Prince of Players opens with Kynaston and his friend and manager Thomas Betterton enacting Shakespeare’s Othello. Musically, we are immediately presented with a five-note motif that will be heard throughout the opera in many guises. The audience prefers Kynaston’s Desdemona to the other performers, to their displeasure, and this is our first intimation of what lies ahead for Kynaston. After the performance Kynaston is presented to King Charles II and Nell Gwyn. The two scenes that follow are among the best in the opera as Kynaston returns to the theatre and finds his dresser Margaret (Peg) Hughes practicing the gestures Kynaston himself uses in his portrayal of Desdemona. The music here is very touching and leads to equally fine music as Kynaston discusses his views on why women should not perform on the stage. There follows the entrance of Kynaston’s lover, the Duke of Buckingham, who, in conversation, reveals that Peg is already acting, although only in a tavern. Peg runs out, leaving Kynaston feeling betrayed. Buckingham distracts Kynaston with an invitation to a royal banquet at Whitehall Palace and there is an orchestral love scene that is very beautiful. At the Palace it is revealed that Kynaston’s enemy Sir Charles Sedley is sponsoring Peg as an actress and this prompts Nell Gwyn to demand that the King decree that women in general can act on the stage. Kynaston begs the King not to abolish a whole profession (perhaps the peak of the opera) [“I was an orphan…”] but the King is unmoved and decrees that women will only be played by women on the stage.

In the second act Betterton encourages Kynaston to take on male roles, but Kynaston falters [“Yet she must die”]. Soon after Buckingham breaks off their relationship and Kynaston ends up singing bawdy songs in a tavern. He is rescued from this by Peg but then is severely assaulted by Sedley’s hired thugs. A new variant of the main theme, for Peg and Kynaston, is heard as she nurses him back to health. As their theme becomes more passionate Kynaston tells her his history and Peg confesses her love for him, but also that she feels her acting is an imitation of his. He asks how she would act Desdemona and her more realistic version leads to this act’s love scene, passionate where the first act’s was gentle. The opera’s culmination occurs as Peg refuses to perform in a command performance of Othello unless Kynaston stages it. Kynaston remembers his discussion with Peg and the two perform the scene that opened the opera, this time with Kynaston as Othello, but in a totally realistic manner [“I’m the same, only more so”]. Realism is triumphant on the stage and so are Kynaston and Peg.

In the role of Peg Kate Royal is exceptional, having already shown her interest in the music of Carlisle Floyd [review]. Here she produces a beautiful sound while ably portraying the conflicts faced by her character. Keith Phares is a stalwart of new and recent American operas and his portrayal of Kynaston is a case study in character development. His singing is very able, especially given that he sings in more than one voice according to the demands of the story. Special mention must also be made of Alexander Dobson as Betterton and Vale Rideout as Buckingham. Lesser roles are almost all well-performed. The Milwaukee Symphony plays very ably under William Boggs, who gets the utmost effect from Floyd’s score. These discs are the product of two performances of the opera in 2018 but there is an almost complete absence of audience noise. The Florentine Opera was founded in 1933 and has brought many interesting productions to Milwaukee. In a 2018 interview Carlisle Floyd expressed his gratitude to Florentine Opera for committing to record all of Floyd’s as yet unrecorded operas. Let us hope they do so soon, as Prince of Players is a major addition to contemporary American opera.

William Kreindler

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey

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