After seeing Terrence McNally’s new play Golden Age, at City Center produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, I had to do some research because a lot of the performances made no sense to me knowing the background of opera as I do.
Golden Age, is the third in McNally’s opera trilogy, the other two being, The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class. The problem with Golden Age is everyone really lived and was a distinct personality of the time. Bellini (Lee Pace) died nine months after the opening at 33 of pleurisy. Someone with that kind of advanced disease would have coughed a great deal, but first he is given laudanum, then right before the end of the first act he coughs. By Act 11 the loaned handkerchief is bloodied.
Also, McNally has him in a love triangle with Francesco Florimo (Will Rogers) and the fiery opera diva Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth). Ms. Neuwirth brings a dry sense of humor to the role but she doesn’t seem anywhere near the Spanish spitfire and singer this role calls for who died at 28.
Mr. McNally has brought back to life these famous singers and composers but he has not given them life except for Bellini, who is so enamored of his own talent that as the singers perform their arias he is lost in the world in which he created them. Set backstage in Paris during the opening night of Vincenzo Bellini’s last opera I Puritani, we meet the four leading singers, who were known as the “Puritans Quartet” and see their idiosyncrasies. In McNally’s script, they become caricatures instead of real people.
The soprano Giulia Grisi (Dierdre Friel) cares more about how much jewelry to wear than what is going on in the scene. There are major problems with this. First, Grisi was known as an actress as well as a singer. Second, as she fights with Malibran and refuses to perform, Malibran can now introduce the soprano’s big mad-scene aria, but singing is a Maria Callas recording.
The tenor, Giovanni Battista Rubini (Eddie Kaye Thomas), brags about his high notes. The baritone, Antonio Tamburini (Lorenzo Pisoni), stuffs fruits and vegetables into his pants to thrill the audience with his prowess and the bass, Luigi Lablache (Ethan Phillips), wants to play the love scenes even though he is over the hill.
The best part is Mr. McNally knows opera history and throws in gems, which are like tidbits without the steak.
Mr. Pace, as Bellini, fares well as he is given the material that rings true and delivers it with a dreamy haunted quality. There’s also Rossini (George Morfogen – sadly I missed F. Murray Abraham in the role), but again there is not enough material to satisfy though the actor makes us want more.
Walter Bobbie’s direction keeps things at an even pace. Santo Loquasto’s set brings us backstage to Paris but the real star of this show is Ryan Rumery whose sound design is truly a Golden Age.
Golden Age at City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th St. Closes Jan 13th.