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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,
REFERENCE RECORDINGS FR-736 [41.40 + 54.01]

As any film or television producer will testify a biopic of the life of a well-known star is more or less guaranteed to provide successful box office material. Within the confines of the libel laws dramatic situations may be constructed without much need to be overly concerned with the strict demands of truth; and the more scandalous the private life of the performer might be, the higher are the dividends. When the personality in question has been long dead, the immediate appeal to the viewing public may be diminished, but the scope for dramatic elaboration is increased. That is certainly true in the case of the actor Edward Kynaston, whose career over a long life (he died in 1712 well into his seventies) was full of scandal during a period of turbulent political change which in its turn did not leave him unscathed. In the early 1660s, immediately following the restoration of the British monarchy under Charles II, he was immediately involved in the royally-sponsored change of fashion which saw boy actors replaced by women in female roles on the stage.

During this period he played both men and women in the theatre – Samuel Pepys records a performance of Ben Jonson’s Silent woman where he played no fewer than three roles of different genders – and was equally successful in both guises. Pepys in his diary refers to him as both “the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life” and “the handsomest man”, and ladies of fashion delighted to take him out riding with them still wearing his stage costume (one such incident is recorded in this opera). Under the circumstances it is hardly surprising that court gossip linked his name romantically with George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, whose total lack of moral and political scruples would almost certainly have led to his death in an earlier and more censorious age (his father, the paramour of James I, had been assassinated), but who seems to have thrived in the court of Charles II despite a history of dubious loyalty and persistent scandal, redeemed only by an enlightened predisposition towards religious toleration if somewhat intermittently practiced.

Biopics of actors have of course been as much the staple diet of opera as of other dramatic forms of art, ranging in scope from the sentimentality of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur to the raunchy excesses of Turnage’s Anna Nicole. Carlisle Floyd’s Prince of Players – based in turn on The Compleat Female Beauty, a stage play by Jeffrey Gatcher, and a film adaptation under the title Stage Beauty – occupies a sort of middle terrain between Cilean and Turnagesque extremes. The problem with biographical operas tends to be the need to flesh out the story with reams of dialogue setting the historical context; and it cannot be said that Floyd, constructing his own libretto, has entirely avoided this pitfall. But he has also made room for lyrical expansion, not only in the onstage depiction of the death scene from Othello which begins and concludes the action, but in arias for Kynaston himself, the actress Margaret Hughes who was one of the first to take to the stage in 1660 (here depicted as in love with Kynaston) and even a love duet between Kynaston and Buckingham bidding each other farewell which is unfortunately truncated rather abruptly just when a tender musical conclusion would seem to have been required.

In fact there are a couple of places where surprisingly Floyd’s sense of dramatic pacing seems to be awry, not only at the end of the aforementioned duet but also in the preceding scene when the stage directions indicate that Betterton “starts rehearsing again” but no music is provided for the purpose. I suspect indeed that the score may have been subjected to some abridgement for the stage presentation since there are other moments of somewhat abrupt transition. The score was originally written for the Houston Grand Opera’s studio singers – with chamber orchestra – and only later expanded for full orchestral forces for the presentation by Florentine Opera enshrined in this recording. Certainly the fuller scoring would seem to have been to the advantage of the music, since some of the emotional outbursts demand the forces of a full romantic body of instrumentalists.

The singers, too, rise splendidly and with relish to the opportunities they are afforded. Keith Phares is splendid in the central role of Kynaston, whether acting as a female impersonator (with some startling use of falsetto) or as a more conventionally baritone hero. Kate Royal is a marvellous match for him, delivering her soaring lines with passion; Vale Rideout is a suitably epicene, but at the same time touching, Buckingham; Frank Kelley a spiteful and vengeful Sir Charles Sedley (who did indeed historically hire ruffians to beat up the unfortunate actor). Rena Harms is pert and vivacious in the role of Nell Gwynn; and Chad Selton is properly well-mannered and studiously polite, as well as forthright, in his portrayal of the King. But there is a problem with the words throughout, with only Selton as Charles II and Alexander Dobson as Thomas Betterton really able to project the text. This may be due to a clearly deliberate attempt to imitate period English style – Nell Gwynn gets a cockney accent, Sedley a dandified upper-class drawl into which Buckingham also occasionally falls, with only the actors Kynaston, Betterton and Peg Hughes paradoxically allowed a natural style of declamation.

This is only intermittently successful in projecting character, but it does in many places play havoc with the comprehensibility of the text; I was grateful on several occasions for the guidance provided by the printed text in the booklet, although there were discrepancies in places between what was on the page and what was sung. There may also have been problems with the recorded balance. Although the careful microphone placement ensures that we can always hear the voices, the orchestral sound can at times come close to overwhelming in more vehement passages, where William Boggs might to advantage have toned down the projection of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. The chorus have very little to do apart from somewhat conventional paeans of praise (to the King at the end of Act One, and Kynaston at the end of Act Two) and they sound enthusiastic rather than well-disciplined – no real fault under the dramatic circumstances. There are a whole raft of singers in smaller roles, many of them drawn from Florentine Opera’s Baumgartner Studio Artist Programme, and none of them let the side down.

The booklet, exclusively in English, provides us not only with the complete sung text and production photographs but also brief introductory essays by Carlisle Floyd himself, J Mark Baker writing on the history of American opera with particular reference to Floyd, Michael Gieleta as the stage director, plus a full synopsis, albeit no biographical information on the singers. The vocal range of the singers in the cast is not given (it might have assisted in places to identify individuals in the course of the dialogue) but otherwise the whole opera is given an excellent performance which serves well to represent a work which one would welcome the opportunity to encounter in the theatre. Those who are familiar with Floyd’s 1955 Susannah, still his best-known opera, will find Prince of Players some sixty years later a worthy successor to that score.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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