by R.C. McCauley
Houston Grand Opera has had 46 premieres of New American Operas as listed on Wikipedia. That entry doesn’t include O Columbia (Gregory Spears/ Royce Vavrek) premiered last September (pertinent for reasons found later in my review.) Perhaps there are others I am not counting--HGO doesn’t list their premieres on their site. Two that were transcendent are Nixon In China by John Adams and Little Women by Mark Adamo. There have been several misses – Michael Daugherty’s Jackie O (1997), Stewart Wallace’s Harvey Milk (1995), and the especially dreadful New Year (1989) by Sir Michael Tippet. HGO premiered three of Carlisle Floyds operas: Bilby’s Doll (1976), Willie Stark (1981) and Cold Sassy Tree (2000).
|Ben Edquist, Joseph Evans|
Photo: Lynn Lane, Houston Grand Opera
I cannot find a single fault in the casting: Baritone Ben Edquist shines as Kynaston. I first heard him sing in O Columbia, and was impressed with his vocal sound, dashing good looks, and potent virility, whether playing Sir Walter Raleigh early or the Astronaut later in that opera. Edquist won the 2014 Lotte Lenya competition and is an assured member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio (a training program with a most famous alumnus in Joyce DiDonato). Ben’s falsetto singing was problematic the night I was there.
|Ben Edquist, Mane Galoyan|
Photo: Lynn Lane, Houston Grand Opera
This is a “men’s opera” with nine male singing roles and five female roles--and two of the latter spend scant time on stage. Truly there was not a weak singer among them. Many are current or former HGO Studio members. Sopranos Mane Galoyan sings the role of Margaret Hughes, a dresser for Kynaston, and Soprano Sofia Selowsky sings the courtesan Nell Gwynn. Each character has aspirations for the stage and each singer makes the most of their music.
Patrick Summers has done a great job with the score. Gregory Gale’s costumes are wondrous in their detail.
The music is sensational, tonal and very pleasing but, it is not a perfect opera. I find problems with the libretto itself. In Nell Gwynn’s first aria, twice she sings “what a world the stage is” and I immediately went to the song from the movie musical The Bandwagon with the lyric “The world is a stage; the stage is a world of entertainment”, which itself trips back to “All the world’s a stage” from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Nell sings of greasepaint, which was invented by Wagnerian singer Ludwig Leichner around 1873--anachronistic and too knowing. She should have sung of cork, chalk, and powder, the real makeup of the time. Nell’s a schemer and really wants the glory of being a star.
Margaret Hughes knows the hard work that Edward does and wants to be on the stage too, but to earn it. Truly in love with Ned, she sings it directly to the audience once in the first act and twice in a single aria to Kynaston in the Act II. I feel it’s a dramatic miscalculation. If she’d just referred to her feelings obliquely in Act I aria and show those feelings throughout the opera (which she does by taking Kynaston’s pillow home to sleep with and help Kynaston later). When Ned questions her kindness in Act II as she is nursing him after a beating by Charles Sedley’s ruffians, she finally sings the words “I love you” at its end and only then, it would be more dramatically intense. As it stands now Margaret’s feelings are too verbally telegraphed to the audience.
This is truly a declamatory opera, I wish there was a real moment of slow lyric beauty for Kynaston to sing. Everything seems too rushed. Yet the instrumental pavane in the court scene shows Mr. Floyd still can compose gorgeous cantabile music. When the loveliest music is used for a scene change, one wonders.
All in all this was an exciting night at the opera and a worthy effort Mr. Floyd.