“God created man, but Italians created opera.”
Heads up opera aficionados! Terrance McNally’s newest contribution to original theatrical cannon, Golden Age, overflows with lexicon, references and inside jokes. Combining contemporary language (oddly, “fuck” is no more jarring than it would be today) with a background of lush music, McNally renders his impression of artistic (read: histrionic ) temperament most associated with denizens of the genre. Opera can be heard between and beneath dialogue as characters disappear to unseen performance. It’s clear the author has written with affection and knowledge.
Paris, January 24, 1825. We’re backstage at the premiere of Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto opera I Puritani. The production’s four stars: soprano, Giulia Grisi (Dierdre Friel), baritone, Antonio Tamburini (Lorenzo Pisoni), tenor, Giovanni Battista Rubini (Eddie Kaye Thomas), and bass, Luigi Lablanche (Ethan Philips) brag, complain about, snipe at, and flatter the maestro, each other, and unseen artists. Bellini (Lee Pace) agonizes over the reception of his opus, analyzes what he hears on stage, and emotionally ricochets between praise, expectation, and howling impotence in the face of encroaching illness. Feeling his life slip away, perspective is skewed, the importance of every moment heightened. (The composer died nine months later at age 33 of acute inflammation of the intestine. )
Bellini sways between his two great loves. Frequent companion Francesco Florimo (Will Rogers) whom the newspaper Figaro called “a sigh in dancing pumps,” hovers protectively doing what he can to calm and support and former inamorata, visiting diva, Maria Malibran -“La Malibran” (Bebe Neuwirth), a mezzo soprano known for firey intensity. The last player save for a Page (Coco Monroe), is F. Murray Abraham as the great Gioacchino Rossini who, at this juncture, hasn’t written in 20 years, though the importance of his commendation can’t be overestimated. A letter from the student Verdi discreetly shows where and with whom we’re dealing.
Egos fly and swoop. “Modesty is the camouflage of the mediocre. The truly great know who they are,” comments frustrated curmudgeon, Lablanche. When, oh when, will he secure a lead? Tender Rubini suffers from the high romanticism of unrequited love. Handsome, bombastic Tamburini, confidently cuts a swathe through willing women, but stuffs his tights. Grisi has pledged herself to a divo who will not outshine her. Her fury at the appearance of Malibran, the only diva she considers a rival, is almost cataclysmic.
“La Malibran” is McNally’s most interesting character though Bellini delivers the drama. “My detractors held a funeral for my voice in Milan last month. I was the principal mourner,” she quips half seriously. A selectively caring and calculatingly intelligent woman, she acts, while entirely low key, as second act glue.
Golden Age is a dramady of manners. A portrait of artists in the exotic world they inhabit. There’s no arc, denouement, or climax. McNally has skillfully peppered the piece with humor and pathos. There are simply wonderful lines. History appears accurate. Personalities and relationships are sketched, but create atmosphere. Though a bit long, the piece maintains momentum. If you’re not an opera fan, musical terms will be lost; unidentified piano snippets, effective in breaking up dialogue, will be unfamiliar (titters of recognition broke out in various sectors of the audience;) musical breaks may cause impatience. Like French films, we tune into a story in progress. These people had lives before the curtain and will continue after. We are voyeurs.
Director Walter Bobbie who gave us the completely brilliant Venus in Fur, stages with imagination and pleasing composition. Music is utilized with craft, if occasional overindulgence. Bellini’s exaggerated behavior is varied and appealing. Florimo’s attention is never sycophantic, Rubini’s romantic speeches are sympathetic, Grisi’s sensitivity credible, Tamburini’s narcissism amusing. Only the understated presence of Malibran seems slightly off kilter. By all reports a wild card, embodiment of the diva as quiet, tight-lipped and thoughtful feels counterintuitive.
Lee Pace (Vencenzo Bellini) inhabits Bellini’s passion, pinball moods and consistent nerves. His performance resolutely gets under one’s skin. Pace morphs capably from anxiety through dreams, exhilaration, determination and resignation. The actor’s physicality is engaging.
Bebe Neuwith (Maria Malibran) delivers a whole personality. Her Maibran is magisterial, unflappable, and a bit sardonic. The actress’s stillness and timing draws worthy attention. It’s difficult to imagine the character impassioned.
Diedre Friel (Giulia Grisi) has the proud, graceful presence of a diva, yet also gives us a flesh and blood woman. Her listening abilities are a real asset. F. Murray Abraham (Gioacchino Rossini) is so convincing in a small role, it’s as if the man were not acting. The performer’s grounded style is imbued with warmth, humor and the believability of an unusually gracious legend.
Santo Loquasto’s splendid set displays posh affectations of the period opera theater side by side with a brick wall of dressing room doors. A wrought iron railed stairway to the stage adds sweep. Traffic challenges are well met. Being able to see slightly into the wings and into Grisi’s dressing room adds interest.
Jane Greenwood’s Costume Design is splendid. Every ensemble looks rich as well as appropriate, beautifully detailed, and flattering. Rubini’s corset is a fine touch. Ryan Rumery’s Sound Design is perfectly modulated so that not a word of dialogue is missed and timed to perfection.
Photos Joan Marcus
Opening- Lee Pace
2- Ethan Philips, Diedre Friel
3 – Bebe Neuwirth, Will Rogers, F. Murray Abralham
Golden Age by Terrance McNally
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Manhattan Theatre Club
New York City Center Stage 1
131 West 55th (Between 6th & 7th)