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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The Philadelphia Theater Company's 2010 world premiere of A Golden Age was directed by Austin Pendleton. When it moved to the co-sponsoring Kennedy Center in DC, Walter Bobbie took over the reins. Bobbie is still at the helm for the production now at Manhattan Theater Club's City Center theater where he efficiently and effectively steers the new cast through the backstage sturm and drang.
McNally's structural conceit is to follow that first performance of I Puritani but have all the action play out in Santo Loquasto's handsomely designed backstage area of the fabulous Parisian theater. The quartet of the opera's super singers are the plump diva Giulia Grisi (Dierdre Friel), Antonio Tamburini (Lorenzo Pisoni), Luigi LaBache (Ethan Phillips) and Giovanni Battista Rubini (Eddie KayeThomas) . They descend regularly from the unseen by the audience raised stage into a sort of backstage sitting room surrounded by dressing rooms. Here they join the composer (Lee Pace) and his devoted friend Francesco Florimo, (Will Rogers). A great opportunity for McNally to toss out amusing gossip and hold forth on art via colorful characters based on real life people.
The action consists of Bellini's bolstering the temperamental singers, praying for his opera, strutting about and also fretting about his feelings of being an outsider in a foreign land, and trying to hide his fear about the illness he knows is killing him (He did in fact die shortly after the opera's opening at the ripe old age of 33). The flamboyantly Wildean Bellini who, according to the gossiping singers, has been dubbed in the press "a sigh in dancing pumps” also allows the playwright to explore the other dear to his heart subject of homosexual relationships.
But something really dramatic is needed besides backstage squabbles and the tension caused by the insultingly late arrival of Rossini (F. Murray Abraham), the composer who still ranks as a celebrity. McNally provides that something via the unexpected arrival of another diva, Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth). She's older than the pure of voice but not too smart Grisi. Though the older woman's voice is beginning to lose its strength Bellini knows that she is perfect for the soprano role in this opera, but is using Grisi instead because he felt Malibran's strong, very invidivual performance style would make her own his opera.
Actually, while Bellini is the play's pivot, once Neuwirth arrives on scene in a breathtaking red gown (just one of costume designer Jane Greenwood's sumptuous contributions to the play's visual pleasures), much of what follows concerns the point counterpoint between the great Malibran as elegantly portrayed by Neuwirth and the less ideally cast Dierdre Friel's more lightweight and occasionally hysterical Grisl.
The detours into the other actors' caryings on notwithstanding, Lee Pace gives an emotionally rich rendering of a still young musical prodigy. His performance brought to mind his impressive debut n in Keith Bunin's The Credeaux Canvas, in which he was also an artist but one wielding a paint brush. Pace's Bellini is every bit the stressed out volatile genius. Though there's nothing flowery about the dialogue, the composer is very much a man of his era.
Of the maie actors rounding out the singing foursome, Lorenzo Pisoni gets as much comic mileage as possible from the big on machismo baritone Tamburini who stuffs a cucumber and apples into his tights to heighten his appeal to the ladies. Ethan Phillips does well by the tenor Luigi LaBache, so does Eddie Kaye Thomas as Giovanni Battista Rubini. Having seen Will Rogers in very different roles, it took a bit to get used to him as Bellini's loyal lover (the homosexual aspects of the friendship were hinted at but never more conjecture than firm fact).
F. Murray Abraham's late in the play arrival reminded me of another seasoned and always welcome actor John Cullum's late arrival in Lisa D'Amour's Detroit, When F. Murray Abhrahm didn't show up even after the second act began, I caught myself checking my program to see if I'd missed a program insert about his no longer being in the cast. But, like Bellini, I worried for nothing. Abraham, in keeping with his character, arrives very close to the end. True to form, he makes the most of a small role which nevertheless adds a certain piquancy to the casting since Abraham won a Best Actor Tony for his much meatier role as Mozart's rival, Salieri in Amadeus. Another small but worth mentioning role is that of the young page, endearingly played by Coco Monroe
Though the diva duel does add a bit of conflict and Neuworth glamour to the the heavy on exposition structure, A Golden Age never shakes off its flaws: It's not only too talky but that the talk often detours into music world references that theater goers not up on opera. Even those with some enthusiasm for and knowledge of operas, are less likely to know Bellini than Mozart or Verdi. Another problem is engendered by the conceit of watching the play unfold during the performance of I Puritani, but not seeing even an excerpt or two, or hearing more than recorded bits of the beautiful music in the background. Excellent as Ryan Rumery's sound design is, I found myself wishing I could be on the other side of the set, seeing and hearing the opera instead of listening to backstage chatter., which includes Bellini doodling onthe spinet and pontificating. In a conceit within the oerall conceit, Bellini's keyboard moments feature musical pop hits, Mc Nally's way of letting us know that in this golden age, opera arias were like popular show tunes.
Of course, this is a play and not an opera, and opera lovers will eat up Mr. McNally's humor, observations on making art, the whole rambling display of egos and love of art —especially the art of music making.
To prepare for seeing A Golden Age or to enhance and extend your appreciation, you can always get a CD of I Puritanni — one of the finest recordings available is by Mr. McNally's own beloved Maria Callas.
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