|John Kaneklides, Shea Owens, and Jessica Sandidge (photo by Tina Buckman)
Little Opera Theatre of New York, referred to as LOTNY, has been around for a dozen years. Grand in ambition and great in execution, we have trouble with the adjective "little". Founder and Artistic Director Philip Shneidman knows how to put on a show; for the premiere of Carlisle Floyd's opera Prince of Players, he has assembled a talented production team and two wildly talented casts and put them through their dramatic paces with great style.
The libretto was adapted from Jeffrey Hatcher's oft revived play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, which also spawned the film Stage Beauty in 2002. The story, inspired by an entry in the diary of Samuel Pepys, seems to have been little altered. There are two main themes: the first is the difficulty of adapting to a radical change of politics (a very current concern!) and the second is reflective of last night's review of Opera Lafayette's production of Leonore--the theme of a woman rescuing a man.
We are in London in 1661 and Charles II has regained the throne, ending twenty years of repressive Puritan rule. Edward Kynaston, so movingly portrayed by baritone Shea Owens, is famous for performing female roles, since women had not been permitted on the stage. Samuel Pepys (spoken by Hunter Hoffman) acknowledged Kynaston as the most beautiful actor on the stage...and the most beautiful woman in London.
His female dresser Margaret Hughes is not only in love with him but wants very much to be him and to strut the boards. She copies his every gesture. Soprano Jessica Sandidge created a most believable character, carefully balancing her love for him with her competitiveness.
As his friend and lover Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, tenor John Kaneklides was totally convincing and delivered a very fine aria in which every word, enunciated in a plummy English accent, was understandable--something which we wish we could say about everyone.
The pompous King Charles II was played by tenor Nicholas Simpson who also managed some fine singing, superb acting, and clear diction, in spite of being in the upper register a great deal of the time.
As his mistress Nell Gwynne, petite soprano Sharin Apostolou (barely half the size of the King) had the spirit of a woman twice her size. She also longed to play upon the stage and was partly responsible for the King's edict to give women the right to perform. Her big moment came when she sang a folk ballad for her audition, a moment we truly enjoyed.
Bass Matthew Curran portrayed the theater manager Thomas Betterton who will do anything to keep his theater afloat and will steer his ship through the eddies of the current political climate.
Smaller roles were just as well cast and performed. Comic relief was provided by two hilarious performances: Soprano Michelle Trovato played Miss Frayne while mezzo-soprano Hilary Ginther portrayed Lady Meresvale. The scene in which they try to find out Kynaston's gender was hilarious. But it turned ugly when Sir Charles Sedley (effectively played by tenor Neal Harrelson) appeared, seeking sexual favors. Kynaston played along with a prank in which he tried to sell the favors of his two lady companions. Sedley was outraged and humiliated when he discovered Kynaston's male equipment and developed a vengeful streak.
This vengeful streak led him to have our hero badly beaten, giving Ms. Hughes the opportunity to rescue him and nurse him back to health. Then she does something that leads to his transformation. More, we will not tell you!
Mezzo Jane Shaulis had great fun with her role as Mistress Revels, putting poor Kynaston onstage in a bawdy performance in a tavern, way beneath his talent but the only job he could get once his roles were taken by women. It was the hallmark of a fine performance to witness Kynaston's descent from fame and arrogance to shame and humiliation--and later to....no, we won't tell you the ending!
The direction was right on point and we felt as if we were watching a fine play. The set by Neil Patel and Cate McCrea utilized the stage of the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College to create a playing area in the center with balcony seating created on either side with metal risers. It was most effective, as was Nick Solyom's lighting.
Costumes by Lara De Bruijn were outstanding and completely a propos the 17th c. Wigs by Rachel Padula Shufelt looked great, except for Kynaston's which always looked unconvincing.
So...as theater it worked brilliantly and we were very entertained and also moved by the characters. But this is an opera and we have yet to mention the music!
Taste in music is a very personal thing and, in spite of giving Mr. Floyd's music our full concentration, we were unable to find much to enjoy, although he is considered America's preeminent composer. After last night's Gavreau and the prior night's Handel, this music sounded unmusical to our ears. We were sort of okay with the orchestral interludes, beautifully played by the orchestra conducted by Richard Cordova. We heard something of value in the sex scene between Kynaston and Villiers. The pompous music for King Charles sounded about right.
But for the rest of the time we did not experience the music as adding to the drama or the development of the characters. We felt very sorry about that because the elderly Mr. Floyd was present in the audience and we would have so much enjoyed congratulating him, but could not.
We have heard these singers on prior occasions and they all have splendid voices but this music could not show them off to their best advantage. For that, one needs long legato lines. English text discourages that feature.
It is just possible that this story does not require music. Or perhaps it wanted something more melodic. Perhaps Mr. Floyd's music will thrill you in a way that did not thrill us.
We are however pleased to recommend the production and hereby let you know that this superlative cast will be singing the Sunday matinee performance. Examination of the other cast lets us advise you with confidence that tonight's performance will be just as enjoyable.
(c) meche kroop