Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Guest blogger reviews Carlisle Floyd's new opera

Prince of Players--A Review
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
Prince of Players, based on the plot of the play Complete Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher, a highly fictionalized compression of life of Edward (Ned) Kynaston, makes four. Kynaston was an actor who worked at the crest of the Restoration England. In the play, movie and opera--Kynaston only plays female roles at this point in his life. In reality he played both genders throughout his brief career (sometimes in the same play!), but without that lynchpin there would be no plot to hang a sung or spoken drama on. Floyd’s libretto follows the story as told by Hatcher, but doesn’t quote the text of the play or movie that was based on it. With a few exceptions it is a brilliant, compelling stage work, though I do find missteps.

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
The only singer who out-performs Ben on the stage vocally and dramatically (and at moments mops the stage with him) is tenor Joseph Evans as the Sir Charles Sedley, avillainous tenor role. Evans makes every moment on stage compelling, vocally pleasing and unforgettable even at his scummiest, and given Mr. Evans history of playing La Scala, English National Opera, and Grand Thêatre de Genève that is more than understandable.  (He also recorded for Sony Classical and CBS.) Tracing his career, I found a recording from 1976, and he sounds on the recording just as vocally free, focused and beautiful as what I heard onstage last week. If you mix Jerry Hadley’s vocal color with Peter Pears diction (or vice versa - and this is just to give you a ballpark reference) you’d hear in your head an estimation of Mr. Evans vocal goods, but track him down on YouTube and Spotify--I did. It is a shame he hasn’t recorded the major song/aria rep more. Other tenors near his generation (Hadley, Pears and even Robert Tear) recorded more major repertoire.

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.