Lee Pace as composer Vincenzo Bellini and Bebe Neuwirth as mezzo-
Soprano Maria Malibran in a scene from Terrence McNally’s Golden Age
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Playwright Terrence McNally has demonstrated his love for opera in his Tony Award-winning Master Class and his Off Broadway hit, The Lisbon Traviata. Now in latest New York premiere, Golden Age, he takes us backstage in Paris for the opening night of Vincenzo Bellini’s last opera, I Puritani, on the evening of January 24, 1835. McNally’s charming and witty comedy-drama will be of most interest to opera devotees for its in-jokes about such major opera composers as Donizetti and Rossini and legendary opera stars Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran. Although much more conventional than either of McNally’s other opera-themed plays, Golden Age gives Lee Pace and Bebe Neuwirth juicy roles as Bellini and his muse, mezzo-soprano Malibran, which they play to the hilt. In any case, it helps if one is familiar with the bel canto operas of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini.
Golden Age takes place backstage at the Théâtre-Italien just before the curtain is to rise on the first night of I Puritani. Sicilian composer Bellini (Pace) arrives with his patron and lover Francesco Florimo (Rogers). Too nervous to watch from the house, Bellini paces back and forth in the anteroom between the dressing rooms. Will the audience as well as his fellow composers in the house (Donizetti, Rossini, Chopin, Cherubini, Meyerbeer) like it? He has made some daring choices including having the four featured opera singers heard as an off-stage quartet before they ever appear on stage, and having written a Polonaise for his English heroine as a tribute to his friend Chopin – who will get the in-joke but will the critics? And will Rossini, who claims to be an admirer, come backstage to compliment him? It is also obvious that Bellini is not well as he keeps coughing into his handkerchief. Will he live to write another opera – or even get through the evening without collapsing? His manic highs and lows seem to be motivated by something other than just first night jitters.
But backstage is also a hotbed of intrigue. Giulia Grisi (Dierdre Friel) frets that her rival opera singer Maria Malibran may be in the house, although she is supposed to be in Rome singing Bellini’s Beatrice of Tenda. Ladies’ man and lead baritone Antonio Tamburini (Lorenzo Pisoni) is annoyed as usual that although in real life he always gets the girl, in opera the baritone never does. Tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is secretly in love with Grisi, and even though her boyfriend Mario is in the house, he is a bundle of nerves as he is planning to propose during one of the intermissions. Bass Luigi Lablache (Ethan Phillips) feels he always gets the short end of the stick including less stage time than the others. All fear they will not be asked to be in Bellini’s next opera which he intends to adapt from Shakespeare’s King Lear. And then to the horror of Grisi, Malibran shows up backstage in a gorgeous wine color gown, looking magnificent (courtesy of costume designer Jane Greenwood). But she is suffering as she fears that she has lost her voice – and therefore her career.
Ethan Phillips and Dierdre Friel in a scene from Golden Age
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Golden Age is a “semi-musical” evening as we are continually hearing the opera from a distance as it is “sung” from the unseen stage of the Parisian theater (in an unnamed recording). We discover the singers’ insecurities, fears, hopes, inflated egos, and plans for the future. We witness petty bickering and jealousies as well as deep-rooted self-doubts in a profession where everyone is a critic and every singer is expected to top his or her own performance from last time. Although in actuality they would all have been speaking in Italian, McNally has chosen to have no one speak with an accent and to have all of the names and opera titles translated into English. This makes it a bit more difficult for people unfamiliar with Belllini’s career to recognize the gossip (i.e. his opera La Sonnambula is referred to as The Sleepwalker, Antonio Tamburini is called Tony, etc.)
McNally uses all of this to make some pointed comments about art, life and opera. He pokes fun at the pretensions of those involved with opera. His baritone worries about his high notes but stuffs his groin in order to look more well-endowed; his soprano frets about which jewels to wear – while she is playing a Puritan. His supposedly self-effacing composer says, “I despise art for art’s sake, French frou-frou, German bombast. Thank God, I’m Sicilian.” Among the insults, he has Bellini say to his tenor, “You were just a hair flat at the first hemi-demi-semi quaver,” and get the response,” I’m not a magician, Vincent. Silk from a sow’s ear I cannot make.” However, McNally also makes some cogent comments about the art of opera. His Bellini says, “What a strange vocation has chosen me! To bare my heart in music and then depend on strangers to decide what those notes mean.” Later the ill and worn-out composer muses, “Singers get tired; composers do, too.” McNally also has some fun having Bellini improvise melodies by later composers.
Under the polished direction of Walter Bobbie (who in recent years has piloted David Ives’ last three New York comedies), the actors not only throw themselves into their parts, they seem to be having enormous fun with their clever one-liners and stinging put-downs. As famed mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran in her declining years (though historically she died at age 28), Neuwirth lights up the stage on her entrance. Besides being given all the most acerbic lines which she makes register, she also reveals the soul of an artist who fears she will never be as good as she has been again. Her ability to wither an opponent with a word or a line is superbly played. Pace makes Bellini scintillate with wit, doubts and prophecies. The tallest person on stage, he draws the eye with his constant body language and facial expressions as he takes everything personally and has continual trepidations about the opera’s performance under way about which he can do nothing at this late date.
Bebe Neuwirth, Lee Pace and Will Rogers in a scene from Golden Age
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
The actors impersonating the historic opera singers bring real style to their roles. Pisoni as the egotistical baritone Tamburini brings all the swagger of the Casanova who has no uncertainty about his irresistibility to women. As the lead soprano, Friel’s Grisi is at one and the same time modest and conceited about her musical abilities. Thomas is amusing as the self-doubting tenor Rubini who fears his plain looks keep women away, rather than his self-pity. As the bass, Phillips is also comic as a sort of chorus who undercuts the pretensions of all the others.
Rogers offers a sad knowledge of the future as Bellini’s friend and lover who fears for his health. Not portrayed as a musician, he is the outsider who sees most of the game. George Morfogen (replacing F. Murray Abraham who opened in the role) as the elderly composer Rossini also brings an understated sadness to a once great musician now too sick or tired to compose any more, and misses the life he once knew. The play takes place on Santo Loquasto’s magnificent set which takes us back to 1835 and recreates an opera house from the backstage area.
Terrence MacNally’s Golden Age offers an historic glimpse into a famous night at the opera. In doing so, it allows such actors as Lee Pace and Bebe Neuwirth a chance to glitter as bigger than life personalites who helped make opera what it is today. While the play will be best understood and enjoyed by opera lovers, theater lovers should also be able to relate to the fears and insecurities of McNally’s cast of characters. While not a major achievement from a very successful playwright, Golden Age is a diverting evening in the theater.
Golden Age (through January 13, 2012)
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center - Stage I, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com