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Prince of Players
Houston Grand Opera
Mane Galoyan and Ben Edquist in Michael Gieleta's production of Prince of Players, Carlisle Floyd's newest opera, at Houston Grand Opera
© Lynn Lane
CARLISLE FLOYD'S NEWEST OPERA, Prince of Players, which the Houston Grand Opera commissioned, received its world premiere on March 5 in an intimate, moving performance at the Cullen Theater in the Wortham Theater Center. Prince of Players reveals Floyd’s deep understanding and sympathy for issues that pervade our culture today—the complexities and subtleties of gender identity, sexual preference, and their social consequences—played out in a story from seventeenth-century England. The literary trail of Prince of Players goes right back to the time of its historical subject, the Restoration-era actor Edward Kynaston (1640–1706). Remarks about Kynaston in the personal diary of Samuel Pepys inspired a play by Jeffrey Hatcher, Compleat Female Stage Beauty (1999), which was later made into a movie, Stage Beauty (2004). The plot centers on the crisis faced by Kynaston when, by royal decree, he is prohibited from plying the craft that made him famous—playing female roles.
Floyd's opera, for which he also wrote the libretto, condenses Hatcher's story and gives it a darker, grittier quality. The pedal points throughout the opera create the effect of menacingly accumulating dissonance; and the musically topical passages—a courtly minuet during the regal banquet scene; a tavern song during Kynaston's bawdy performance; a folksong for a clumsy audition piece by Nell Gwynn, well-played by soprano Sofia Selowsky—evoked the sinister harshness of Restoration-era London in their harmonic and rhythmic distortions. Thus Kynaston may redefine himself brilliantly in male roles, Peg (Kynaston's dresser) fulfill her vast potential as a female player opposite him on the stage, and King Charles II (tenor Chad Shelton) express pleasure in both of them by the end of the opera; but Floyd's telling of the story has its eyes wide open to some cruelties beneath its exotic, period-piece exterior. Oppressive gender roles, rigid social prohibitions, and the arbitrariness and damaging consequences of absolute power all leave their scars on Kynaston, so that we are as much awakened to his condition as uplifted by his triumph.
Floyd has a long history with the HGO that includes co-founding the HGO Studio with former general director David Gockley, so it was fitting that the Prince of Players cast comprised mostly Studio singers and featured two first-year members in the leading roles—baritone Ben Edquist as Edward Kynaston and soprano Mane Galoyan as Margaret (Peg) Hughes. Edquist’s warm, soothing voice and youthful, fresh-faced appearance, were effective in realizing Kynaston's ambiguous sexuality and his gender-shifting performances, either as passive female (when playing Desdemona in an onstage Othello) or aggressive and murderous male (as Othello). Galoyan accomplishes the no-less-demanding task of portraying a woman in love who forcefully shatters the conventional stereotypes of her gender when her Desdemona, the antithesis of meek acceptance, fights furiously and desperately as Othello suffocates her. Bass-baritone Federico De Michelis, also a first-year Studio Artist, sings with a deep-voiced authority as the actor and theater manager Thomas Betterton, who crucially mediates between the conflicting forces that weigh upon his acting company.
A reduced HGO Orchestra, led by Patrick Summers, accompanied this chamber opera. The performance nonetheless featured rich, full-ensemble sweeps of emotional color as well as clarity of solo motifs in counterpoint with the voices. Stage director Michael Gieleta, set designer Shoko Kambara and costume designer Gregory Gale, all in their HGO debuts, combined their talents to create a production that neatly and efficiently integrated a simple set centered on a small, rotating stage upon a stage, expert blocking coordinated with its rotations—and effective shifts of lighting by Renée Brode—for scene changes, and detailed and lavish costumes.
Just one moment in this well-choreographed, extravagantly costumed production fell flat when the love scene between Kynaston and George Villiers (tenor Scott Quinn) featured a kind of fake kissing that avoided male lip-to-lip contact. Given that the later heterosexual love scene between Kynaston and Peg was unreservedly physical and unfolded during music just as beautifully passionate, this non-depiction of homosexual love could only have reflected a directorial lack of confidence or a prudishness of the singers, either one an irony in the context the opera's plot and its messages. Later productions should either "go there," or not "go there" and let the evocative music and our imaginations do the work. —Gregory Barnett