When the most intriguing part of an opera – Carlisle Floyd's Prince of Players, a world premiere, no less, at Houston Grand Opera – occurs before a note of music is heard, something's terribly wrong.
What is seen upon entering the Wortham is an excerpt from the diary of Samuel Pepys, that rapscallion chronicler of Restoration London, projected on the front curtain, in which he lauds the formidable talents of Edward Kynaston, boy actor and leading character in Floyd's musical drama. There's more wit, charm and truth in Pepys's words than anything in the wan opera that follows.
I quote from the passage written January 7, 1660: “After dinner...I and my wife to the theatre, and there saw The Silent Woman. The first time that ever I did see it, and it is an excellent play. Among other things here, Kinaston, the boy; had the good turn to appear in three shapes: first, as a poor woman in ordinary clothes...then in fine clothes, as a gallant, and in them was clearly the prettiest woman in the whole house, and lastly, as a man; and then likewise did appear the handsomest man in the house.”
Floyd is a grand old lion at HGO, revered, feted, lauded. He co-founded its internationally prestigious young singers training program (HGO Studio), which is certainly on a par with the equally prestigious San Francisco Opera's Merola Program; he has taught for two decades at the University of Houston; and HGO has commissioned and premiered four other works by him over the years. If only his work lived up to the hype.
Floyd is America's Mascagni or Leoncavallo. For all his talent, hard work and string of operas, only one has made it into the repertory, his Appalachian-tinged Susanna (1956), an update of the Apocrypha's story of randy church elders who spy on a virtuous woman taking a bath. And that's a work from 60 years ago. Of Mice and Men (1970), adapted from the Steinbeck classic, may make it, but it hasn't yet. That's slim pickings for an opera composer. He's beloved for his Southern charm, his flinty style, his accomplished musicality; his operas may be admired, but they're not loved. That's true of Prince of Players.
He's used Jeffrey Hatcher's bio-play Compleat Female Stage Beauty as the basis for this chamber work. If you haven't seen the play, perhaps you've seen Richard Eyre's atmospheric adaptation, Stage Beauty (2004), starring an angelic, androgynous Billy Crudup as Edward Kynaston, one of the early Restoration theater stars who specialized in women's roles. Nobody knows whether Kynaston was gay or not, but Hatcher expands on this premise to make gender-bending a crux of his story. Kynaston's fortunes, and a straighter sex life, turn neatly around with the love of a good woman. So simple, so easy. We didn't buy this fairy tale in 2004, and it's just as stale in 2016. Singing a lie doesn't make it more appealing, or believable.
While not exactly easy listening, Floyd's jagged but tonal melodies don't hurt the ears. If anything, his music for Prince is...undistinguished. There's a thread of a haunting phrase that lingers somewhat – from Margaret's brief aria in an early scene in Act I about her unrequited love for the actor – but it's never adequately expanded or varied. There's a bit of the antique in “Merrie” Charlie's music that plays with pomp and kingly self-importance, but the music never smiles anywhere else. There's nothing in Floyd's music that commands attention, that makes us sit up and pay attention. We listen politely, a bit distracted, hoping something will catch fire. Nothing ever does, more's the pity.
At least the physical production is something to look at. Although director Michael Gieleta tends to fuss, overpopulating the stage with too many stagehands, too many chandeliers, too much dumbshow during Floyd's intermezzi, the costumes by Gregory Gale are incredibly detailed works of stage beauty, as is the rotating platform – with its own set of sliding bottom drawers – designed by Shoko Kambura, which doubles as stage, backstage, bedroom, throne hall and London stews. Renée Brode's amber wash, although somber and dank, makes the opera world look as though the whole place were lit by candlelight.
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The cast is mostly current students at HGO Studio or recent grads. Youth works in this opera's favor. Baritone Ben Edquist, singing Kynaston, made quite an unexpected splash last month when he stepped in at the very last moment for an ailing singer and sang the Count in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, standing at a lectern while director Ian Rutherford acted the role. Broad of shoulder, he's a handsome stage presence, with ringing, robust sound. He makes a very statuesque woman, hardly a little slip of a thing, like Crudup in the film. You wonder why he doesn't fight off Lord Sedley's gay-bashers – he towers over them.
But Floyd doesn't explain a lot of things, skipping over plot points or giving us too much uneven backstory. Edquist is alive in primary colors, but the libretto keeps Kynaston tamped down so that the subsidiary characters come off stronger and maybe more interesting. How about a story about Nell Gwynn (mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky), who parlayed her oranges into the king's bed and treasury? Or Margaret Hughes (soprano Mane Galoyan), regarded by theater historians as England's first legit woman actor; or Thomas Betterton (bass-baritone Federico De Michelis), known in his own time as the greatest actor in England; or the conflicted Duke of Buckingham (tenor Scott Quinn), lover of Kynaston who spurned him when their affair got too hot; or priapic Charles II (tenor Chad Shelton) with his many mistresses and toy spaniels he loved more than anyone? This one tale contains a lot of operas, but Floyd, his own librettist, hasn't quite depicted any of them in music with any personality, washing out Kynaston in the process.
The great Floyd is 89 years old. Without question he is the oldest living composer still writing operas. A prayer: May the muse of music permit him many more years of productivity. Prince of Players should not be his epitaph.
Prince of Players continues on March 11 and 13m at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For more information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $25-$80.