Sunday, March 6, 2016

Houston Grand Opera's "Prince of Players"

Last night, we were privileged to see Houston Grand Opera's world premiere of Carlisle Floyd's Prince of Players, a chamber opera in two acts about Edward Kynaston, one of the last British actors to routinely portray women on the British stage. Kynaston's life was turned upside down when King Charles II decreed not only that women could legally begin acting, but that men would be forbidden (or at least very strongly discouraged) from playing female roles from that point on.

If this story sounds familiar, it may be because you've heard of the 2004 movie Stage Beauty starring Billy Crudup and Claire Danes. Jeffrey Hatcher wrote the screenplay for the movie, based on his own stage play titled Compleat Female Stage Beauty. The opera follows the movie closely, but in my opinion provides a far better medium for the story.

The opera begins with Kynaston (baritone Ben Edquist) dazzling courtly audiences with his melodramatic portrayal of Desdemona in Othello. He is so beloved, in fact, that the audience's applause derails the production, to the annoyance of Kynaston's fellow players. Kynaston's dresser, Margaret Hughes (soprano Mane Galoyan), secretly yearns both for Kynaston and for the chance to perform on the stage herself should women ever be permitted to do so. In preparation, she watches him from the wings, carefully practicing the gestures he has perfected, which were the style of acting favored at the time.

Once Charles II makes his proclamation, both Margaret and Nell Gwynn, who is also Charles's mistress, join the company of players where Kynaston would be welcome to remain if only he could learn to act in men's roles. But Kynaston is uncomfortable doing so, and rather humiliates himself trying.

As Kynaston falls on hard times, Margaret Hughes proves her devotion. Not only does she rescue him from the tavern where he has been reduced to playing a cross-dresser for laughs, she nurses him when he's beaten by a nobleman's goons and refuses to play her new role as Desdemona at court unless Kynaston is brought back to re-stage the famous death scene. From the artful, melodramatic playmaking that has been so fashionable, both Kynaston and Hughes have learned that infusing raw emotion into their roles will remake the theater and shape the future of play-acting.

This year at HGO, we've seen Ben Edquist in a number of roles, most notably as Sir Walter Raleigh/Astronaut in the world premiere of HGOco's O Columbia. He's a first-year member of the HGO Studio (co-founded by Carlisle Floyd many years ago, as a matter of fact), and has been in almost every HGO production this season. He usually appears in supporting roles, or occasionally singing a featured role during alternate cast performances. Not this time.

While we've enjoyed all of Ben Edquist's performances, this is easily the perfect role for him. Or maybe it's the other way around: perhaps he is the perfect singer for the role. Not only was his voice particularly assured in this opera, his acting was beautiful, and in a part where he had to play a man playing a woman while still remaining very much a man. At any given moment, whether or not he was singing, his face was full of the emotions experienced by a celebrated man who has just been forbidden, by royal edict, from pursuing his profession as he knows it. His world has ended.

I equally loved the casting of another first-year Studio artist, soprano Mane Galoyan as Margaret Hughes. Her acting was lovely as well, but it was her exquisite vocal control during the moments of quieter music that struck me the most.

I also enjoyed seeing Megan Samarin and Pureum Jo as, respectively, Lady Meresvale and Miss Frayne. (Megan also sang the role of Mistress Revels, in the bawdy tavern from which Hughes rescues Kynaston.) In one scene during Act I, the ladies beseech Kynaston to walk with them in the park while still dressed as Desdemona, teasing him into proving that he really is a man. They were the only three performers on stage for a short time, and I noted the moment because they're all Studio artists and all had lead roles in O Columbia. I felt incredibly proud that my opera company in my adopted city is finding and training these up-and-coming young stars who will eventually be known around the world.

The other thought that went through my mind as I watched the rest of this production is that this was somehow the sexiest, most romantic opera I can remember seeing. Star-crossed lovers often sing (and sing and sing) about their lust and love and devotion, but I feel like here we got to see it rather than just listen to it. There's a scene in Act 1 in which Kynaston interacts with his lover, George Villiers the Duke of Buckingham. While the pair must practice discretion, their love and passion is obvious and moving. Later, after the Duke reluctantly gives up his lover (in an incredibly touching moment), Kynaston is brutally attacked. As Margaret Hughes nurses him back to health, she confesses her love for him, and Kynaston discovers and expresses his passion for her as well.

For me, the love and passion between both couples was equally believable, moving, and above all sexy.

I know I keep saying that if you've been holding back on opera, "this" is the one to see (the recent brilliant production of The Marriage of Figaro, for example). But seriously, this is it. It's in English. (Yes, there are sur-titles, but you won't need them because the diction is knife-edged.) It's short. It's beautifully set-dressed and costumed. It's sexy. It's a world premiere by a major American composer who recently turned ninety years old. It has only two performances remaining in Houston.

And it really should not be missed.


Unknown said...

Agreed! This one is not to be missed. I took my teenage son and we were both stunned when intermission came because we were not just engrossed in the story and the characters, but completely immersed in the music and the staging! The music was amazing and tied in so well. Was easy to hear and enjoy as it supported and added to the tension and the characters. The staging was perfect and just fit in so well that it seemed so natural and organic that you didn't really notice it in a way that competed, yet it was terrific. The second half was really fun and dramatic, for the characters and the music, and we had a lot to discuss afterward. Definitely our favorite opera.

Amy Sisson said...

Thanks for posting, Samantha!

I wish I could have seen this a second time. I'm hoping this gets picked up by other companies and eventually makes its way back to Houston again.