Of the 1969 music festival Woodstock it was said, “Be there or be square,” and all of rock ’n’ roll showed up. A similar directive seems to have been issued for January 24 1835, the night that Vincenzo Bellini’s opera I Puritani premiered in Paris. Now, for a new production at Manhattan Theatre Club of his entertaining, detailed 2010 play Golden Age, Terrence McNally assembles tout le monde at the Theatre-Italien: everyone from Rossini, the king of opera, portrayed by F. Murray Abraham, to Louis-Philippe, the king of France.
In this lavishly appointed evening, which imagines what went on backstage during the performance, McNally resorts occasionally to stilted dialogue between friends to convey a wealth of information. This tactic tends to drag down the pace of the production, directed by Walter Bobbie, even as the singers rush on stage to sing their arias at a preparation-free clip that sometimes seems less Italian opera than French farce.
McNally makes I Puritani’s renowned singers rather buffa: soprano Giulia Grisi is rotund, tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini is temperamental, bass Luigi Lablache feels slighted, and baritone Antonio Tamburini stuffs cucumbers in his costume to exaggerate his manhood. To Bellini, given a soulful interpretation by Lee Pace, McNally assigns many of the best lines about the creative process. He also has him sit at the backstage keyboard and plunk out a snatch of Lloyd Webber’s “Memory”. Opera arias, in other words, were the pop hits of their heyday.
McNally’s main technical problem was to write around the music of I Puritani, which is heard throughout the production. He manages this rather well, although it does establish an often unfair fight: McNally vs Bellini. That battle, however, is in keeping with what is, along with mortality, the play’s main motif: rivalry.
For instance, the soprano Giulia must endure the sudden appearance backstage of the era’s notorious singer, Maria Malibran, portrayed by Bebe Neuwirth. Whether Malibran was in the house that night is speculation on McNally’s part, but he can’t resist setting her up as a proto-Callas to Giulia’s Sutherland. When McNally gave us the real Callas, in his 1994 Master Class, the effect was livelier, just as the heartbreak in his 1989 drama, The Lisbon Traviata, was rawer than Bellini’s Weltschmerz in Golden Age. Taken together, McNally’s unofficial trilogy is lively, even if the newest instalment is the least satisfying.