Top Pick! — Terrence McNally’s Golden Age is a backstage story about opera singers and their all-too-human egocentric jealousies. It’s also about creating truth and beauty in art. Altogether, McNally pulls off a not-to-be-missed richly-layered masterpiece-in-the-making about the passion to create, to mean, to be.
It is the eve of January 24, 1835, as we watch the high-stakes debut of composer Vincenzo Bellini’s (Jeffrey Carlson) I Puritani from the wings of the Théâtre-Italien in Paris. Scenic designer Santo Loquasto puts us there with a gorgeous late-Empire period set, festooned with a heavily draped proscenium arch that frames crystal-dripping chandeliers, floral bouquets and eclectic clutter. Paris is in the aftermath of another revolution and a restoration of the monarchy under an ineffective King Louis-Phillipe. Life is brutish, ugly and violent for middle class Parisians in an economic depression. Opera houses are their refuge. Composers and opera divas and divos have become their new royalty.
Sounds of the opera being performed drift down from the stage upstairs, while Bellini anxiously listens and waits. Carlson projects Bellini’s frustrated genius, his controlling flamboyance and cynicism, in a way that makes it somehow engaging and endearing. He deftly handles McNally’s poetic, cadenced speech as if every line comes from a calm center in a maelstrom. With a casual toss of the head or flick of his wrist, Bellini defends the I Puritani plot (opera buffs know that the plots are often silly) as an excuse to unleash arias in bel canto (beautiful song) style by saying, “Yes, it’s a ridiculous libretto but my music isn’t.” For Bellini, music must have a purpose-“to elevate….or to inspire….”.
With I Puritani, the young composer has written a romance about forgiveness. The I Puritani stage lovers live happily ever after, but such good fortune is unlikely for its performers and their backstage entanglements are often funny. The singers dash on and off, fretting first about whether or not they are “in voice” or how well they “took the high note.” The stakes are even higher for the volatile Bellini, who knows he is dying, yet is pushing himself to write to even greater perfection. Perhaps a King Lear. Above all, Bellini craves the recognition from only one member of the distinguished audience – Gioacchino Rossini, (George Morfogen), the “pope of Italian opera”, whose blessing would secure his place among the immortals.
But truly great art has a beauty and truth of its own far more elevated than Rossini’s judgment. And Bellini is reaching for that: “The highest art should be unperformable,” he tells his biographer and lover, Francesco Florimo, (Roe Hartrampf) in a spell-binding scene. In a rapturous soliloquy – itself almost an aria that is timed perfectly to the music being performed onstage – Carlson brought the opening night audience to pin-drop attention as Bellini relives his creation of it. “Great art is capable of killing us. That’s why there is so little of it,” he tells Florimo. “These people couldn’t be singing it better yet it’s not what I hear in my head.”
Immortality is one thing; competition is another. Enter Maria Malibran, “The Malibran,” flamboyantly played by the bewitching Amanda Mason Warren in a magnificent costume of black silk cape over a scarlet empire-waisted ballgown (costumes by Richard St. Clair). The Malibran, an untrained singer, sings “wild,” and “untamed”as if from her very soul as opposed to her challenger, the coloratura soprano, Giulia Grisi, (Rebecca Brooksher), who is onstage as she enters, and whose stylized, technical skill is dazzling but lacks emotion. Sparks fly as two arch rivals later face off.
When Grisi claims to be unable to go on, Malibran sings her lines from the wings with such passionate conviction that Bellini promises to rewrite the opera for her to perform in Naples. At Bellini’s pleading, Malibran, speaking his lyrics, enacts his mad scene for him, clearly showing her love for the dying genius, a soul-wrenching moment thanks to Warren’s performance.
Throughout Golden Age, as directed by Walter Bobbie, the cast sparkles with energy and is uniformly superb. Paradoxically, ego drive and competitive strife are what make the four leads great artists. And the boisterous Antonio Tamburini, the baritone, played with a wonderful, broad-gestured, self-mocking bravado by Marc Kudisch, stuffs his crotch with apples and cucumbers to enhance his macho appeal. Brooksher, costumed in tightly cinched, hourglass bodices, bounces on stage with saucy hauteur as the celebrated Grisi and plays the edgy prima donna to the hilt. Hoon Lee is the trumpet-voiced bass, Luigi Lablache, a family man with 13 children to feed. And Christopher Michael McFarland is the lusty but gallant tenor, Giovanni Battista Rubini, who boasts that he can meet the demands of hitting the F above high C, but, we learn, is insecure about his pox-scarred face and physical appearance. Finally, kudos must go to George Morfogen, a seasoned veteran of classical theater, who brilliantly characterizes the famed Gioacchino Rossini, who drops by backstage to tell Bellini he is a true artist for his melodic gift “….that can be the deepest expression of the heart.”
If there are flaws in the writing, it’s in the length. Maybe a few more cuts are needed. But then again, I found myself so fascinated by the dialogue I could have listened and watched all night long. Go, experience this miraculous little gem. It’s worth it.
Suggestion: Sit up close to catch the intimacy of the piece.
Golden Age – Top Pick!
A new play and the Washington D.C. premiere by Terrence McNally
Produced by Philadelphia Theatre Company
At The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy