Terrence McNally play directed by Austin Pendleton with Rebecca Brooksher, Jeffrey Carlson, Roe Hartramph, Marc Kudisch, Hoon Lee, Christopher Michael McFarland, Dante Mignucci, George Morfogen att the Suzanne Roberts Theatre ">
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A CurtainUp Philadelphia Review
McNally has come up with an unusual premise. Taking place on a single night, January 25,1835, all action transpires backstage at the fabulous world premiere in Paris of Vincenzo Bellini's I Puritani. It features a quartet of supersingers. As it is ostensibly being performed on the other side of the curtain on the Théãtre Italien's stage, we don't actually see the opera but we do hear a few parts of it.
The play opens as the composer prays, struts and frets backstage, feeling that he is " the most superfluous person in this theater." A Romantic Era figure in the vein of Alfred de Musset, but with a Wilde streak, Bellini swings between his ego and his insecurities, alternately raging and inert —bitchy but fragile, sometimes reeling in his opera pumps. The ailing young aesthete is afflicted with anxiety about the performance and a perceived insult by late-arriving Rossini. He self-analyzes, lectures on art, toys with the piano, and dispenses opinions: " I hate high notes. They're what's wrong with opera. "
Bellini is the centerpiece, but much of the ensuing drama concerns two divas. Needless to say, they don't get along. Grisi, a gloriously talented soprano, sometimes in hysterics and none too bright, needs to have the opera's story and characters explained to her (and the audience) on opening night. The other soprano, Malibran, arrives unexpectedly. She is the smart one: " I know everything worth knowing, often long before it's true." Hers is a towering talent, but her voice is just beginning to lose its strength. Although "Vinnie" Bellini loves Malibran, and knows that she is perfect for the soprano role in this opera, he did not offer it to her. He fears that if she performed it she would own the opera, and it would no longer be his.
This new play is still in process and it has unresolved issues. However, although the rehearsal time for the PTC production evidently was rather short, the cast is strong: Jeffrey Carlson is emotionally engaged in the role of Vincenzo Bellini, whose genius can't be contained in easy postures or calm conversation. Carlson has developed a vocabulary of intense gestures and mannerisms for a tortured character who is divided in himself. And despite the use of modern colloquial English, his Bellini comes across as a fascinatingly 19th century character.
Amanda Mason brings elegant deportment to the role of the great singer Maria Malibran, and Rebecca Brooksher is ethereal yet suitably perky as star soprano Guilia Grisi. Marc Kurdisch is appealing as Tamburini, the baritone — -it's an entertaining role and he has fun with it. Christopher McFarland's bold but insecure tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini is well played, and Hoon Lee contributes a wry Luigi Lablache. Roe Hartrampf does the best he can with the role of Florimo, Bellini's friend. No easy task when the character is so pedestrian that one wonders what the great man sees in him — well, there is the loyalty. The ensemble is rounded out by a sweet page (Dante Mignucci) and a magnanimous Rossini (George Morfogen.)
Playwright McNally relays messages to this play's audience by airing Bellini's concerns about the reception of his opera: Bellini wants the audience to be patient with the initial exposition. McNally may have the same concern about the first act of his own play, which is encumbered by long explication. It is also too often sidetracked by a lack of focus and by conversations entre deux that strand other characters on stage in dead space. Thus Act I presents challenging staging problems, even for an experienced director like Austin Pendleton. It may also be the case that the many references to composers and singers might not be appreciated by audience members not versed in opera. Quite a number of empty seats were in evidence after the first intermission.
While the concept of an opera being performed in the background of a play is intriguing, the actual experience is a bit frustrating. Although the actors (alas) do not sing in this performance and there is no orchestra, it's easy to be captivated by the muted recorded opera that is tantalizingly dangled in the background [Ryan Rumery, sound design]. I, for one, wanted to hear more of the opera's lovely music. But Bellini, who is supposed to care so much about hearing his music, pretty much talks right through the operatic performance, as do the other characters. But talk they must — after all, this is a play. That's the conundrum.
The concurrent-shows conceit has other problems too. It divides the audience's attention and doesn't always reward interest. For one small example, we are set up for a note we never hear. We look forward to hearing the tenor hit his prized high F note, but as the play crescendos, the opera is eclipsed by other concerns, and the matter of the note is forgotten.
Loquasto's ornate set doesn't stint on the flourishes. St.Clair's costumes are gorgeous. Yet amid all the opulence and glamour, the McNally humor makes the baritone's ridiculous tights a celebrated visual note! In the spirit of size matters, Tamburini amply stuffs the front of his tights with a cucumber and apples.
The play is a rich concoction, but it is too fat, which makes it ungainly. It's a tough assignment for the director to keep up the impetus. The last act bogs down and loses momentum long before the fat lady sings. Surely the production would benefit from nouvelle cuisine in the script department. I can relate. This review could lose a few pounds as well.
Still, there's much to love in McNally's sprawling, rambling, humor-laced play. It is over-ripe with Romantic excess in its rivalries and conflict, its jealousies, fears and egos. And underneath it is really about love, whether it's love of music, self-serving or heartfelt romantic love, love offered, accepted, refused, long-term or fleeting. Golden Age spills heart all over the stage.
Note: Philadelphia Theatre Company is Terrence McNally's go-to theatre company to nurture the development of his world premieres, and they clearly love him. A plaque in the lobby of their Suzanne Roberts Theatre celebrates his "artfulness, wisdom and generosity of spirit that will forever grace the American stage."