I once asked Luciano Pavarotti what opera meant; the great tenor gave me a baffled look, but he answered that opera was not difficult to comprehend. Farmers played opera in barns to increase milk production. “Even cows understand opera.”
One wonders what cows would make of “Golden Age,” Terrence McNally’s backstage comedy set in 1835 during the opening night of “I Puritani,” the last opera written by Vincenzo Bellini, who died just nine months later at age 33.
McNally, an established devotee of opera, has used the art form in two previous plays, “La Lisbon Traviata” and “Master Class,” the first about an opera fan, the second about Maria Callas, the great and prematurely spent soprano. Both of these effective dramas did not require that theatergoers also be obsessed with opera. The stellar cast of “Golden Age” – which includes Lee Pace (“The Normal Heart”) and Bebe Neuwirth — features F. Murray Abraham in a cameo at the very end of the play as the aging composer Rossini. Abraham won an Oscar playing Mozart’s rival Antonio Salieri in the movie “Amadeus.” All of this might offer the promise of another first-rate drama. That promise is not fulfilled.
It’s not clear who the audience is supposed to be for “Golden Age.” Devoted opera fans might well be put off by the historical liberties (aka: inaccuracies). They would surely expect more than the snatches of the actual music, provided by old recordings, as the performers leave temporarily from “backstage” (the actual stage) to go on stage (backstage) to sing, with little more moment than if they were excusing themselves to use the restroom. (Is there some Equity rule that a drama about opera stars can’t feature performers who can sing opera?)
Theatergoers without any special love of opera will sit through two and a half hours having their worst prejudices confirmed: Bellini the composer (Pace) is driven, dreamy and tubercular, waxing ethereally with his patron and lover (Will Rogers) about the muse and immortality. The fat soprano (Dierdre Friel) is temperamental and jealous; she faints histrionically, then props herself back up when her regal but prematurely spent rival (Neuwirth) is asked to substitute. The tenor (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is vain and insecure; the baritone (Lorenzo Pisoni) is a Lothario who stuffs fruit in his pants to enhance his reputation for sexual prowess; the bass (Ethan Phillips) is gruff and grouchy. All is not melodrama and bitchery. There is also a lot of humor, although the jokes manage to be either insider or obvious, or both: Idly tickling his backstage piano, Bellini comes up with melodies from “The Godfather” and “Cats.”
There is a hint in “Golden Age” of why opera continues to attract an intense following more than a century after its golden age – but it is less in Terrence McNally’s writing than in Santo Loquasto’s rich if relatively cramped set (City Center’s Stage I is no Met), and in Jane Greenwood’s luxurious costumes.
The Manhattan Theater club at City Center Stage I
By Terrence McNally
Directed by Walter Bobbie; sets by Santo Loquasto; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Ryan Rumery; hair and wig design by Tom Watson.. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including one 15 inute intermission.
WITH: F. Murray Abraham (Gioacchino Rossini), Dierdre Friel (Giulia Grisi), Coco Monroe (Page), Bebe Neuwirth (Maria Malibran), Lee Pace (Vincenzo Bellini), Ethan Phillips (Luigi Lablache), Lorenzo Pisoni (Antonio Tamburini), Will Rogers (Francesco Florimo) and Eddie Kaye Thomas (Giovanni Battista Rubini).
Golden Age is schedule to run through January 6.