Opera composers do not often change their spots. Everyone honors Verdi, whose septuagenarian operas ring wonderful changes on a long and spectacular career, but in this as in so many ways, Verdi was unique. It is astonishing that Carlisle Floyd, whose Susannah was a hit sixty years ago, has now, at ninety, presented us with another opera—his sixteenth. But it does not signal much of an advance on its predecessors.
Floyd’s craft is unalloyed by time: He writes beautifully for voice, violating none of the proper standards and giving good singers enjoyable lines with which to show themselves off. He writes elegantly, sometimes superbly, for orchestra. He knows a thing or three about inserting buffoonish genre numbers into a plot (an audition scene, a louche tavern) for our refreshment.
All these were in evidence in Prince of Players, his latest (last? Well, one cannot be certain of that) opera, which premiered in Houston a year ago and has now had a run of four performances in New York, at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse under the auspices of the Little Opera Company. The show was double cast, in case anyone became ill (as occurred). I heard the second (Friday and Sunday) cast.
The libretto, however, also by Mr. Floyd and deriving from a film or two, is a puzzle. We are in Restoration England, around 1661. Charles II, the merry monarch, has been placed on the throne at the fall of the Puritan Republic, and the theaters reopened after nearly twenty years of Calvinist anathema. To celebrate his accession, King Charles decrees that women’s roles on the English stage, hitherto performed by boys with treble, unchanged voices, will now be played by women, as on the Continent.
Our title character, Ned Kynaston, is supposedly the greatest and most attractive Desdemona of his day. Floyd has made Kynaston a baritone, and he does not make use of falsetto for Desdemona, which we see in an unconvincing presentation of the murder scene. (Nor is Othello in blackface, here or when played by Kynaston at the show’s end, a preposterous lacuna before the 21st century.)
All this would seem basic to the work Floyd is attempting to present, but the matter of his voice is skipped over without comment so that we can be shown Ned flirting with female fans, bedding an admiring duke, and only capable of “maturing” into an actor who can perform male roles when he has begun to fuck women. Does this old-fashioned not to say implausible psychology startle or offend you? It forfeited my sympathy.
These jangling implausibilities might be acceptable if the score made the case of a sexually bewildered Ned Kynaston, or if the performance of the penultimate scene of Othello were credible on any level. We don’t need Verdi, but we do need some connection to the actual play and singers capable of performing the scene. Kynaston’s torn personality is barely suggested in the music as written and sung; what we have is an opera buffa without a buffo score or perhaps it’s too buffo for a serious topic.
Had Mr. Floyd kept to a simpler story and more basic characters, his pleasing score might have created something worth reviving, at least on music school stages. But he has bitten off a great deal more than he has been able to chew.
Some of these confusions may be settled by a glance at Wikipedia, from which we learn enough to see both why Mr. Floyd was inspired by the material and unable to set it plausibly. The real Kynaston, twenty years old when King Charles returned (presumably his voice had changed), played both female and male roles. Samuel Pepys admired his looks but said “her voice is not very good.” If the opera had presented two personalities and found a single voice to perform them (or a singer with two voices, which is easy), we might be getting somewhere. But this is a fellow who portrayed males as ably as females without sex playing much of a part in it.
Shea Owens has the looks and the secure, easy baritone for Kynaston and a sort of insolent chip-on-the-shoulder that served for all-purpose personality here. Jessica Sandidge, as the actress who imitates and then swipes his leading role—but hauls him into bed to soften the blow—had rather more of the physique du role. Sharin Apostolou sang a spirited Nell Gwynn, sending herself up deliciously in the audition scene. Met vet Jane Shaulis thoroughly enjoyed herself as a foul-mouthed innkeeper, but the voice that, in two brief lines, made me sit up and take notice and wish to hear more belonged to Sahoko Sato Timpone.
Most of the male roles were rather talky than lyrical, and their singers seemed embarrassed by the dramaturgy, which does them credit. The direction, insofar as it was not improvised, was credited to Philip Shneidman. The sets seemed elementary and cheap; the orchestra was small but both accomplished and stylish. The conductor was Richard Cordova, whose long-term and ardent admiration for the composer produced many happy sounds.
Pboto by Tina Buckman.