Dueling divas, unrequited love, and a conflicted and ailing composer are the stuff of great operas – and possibly, an invigorating night in the theater. But in Terrence McNally's Golden Age, now at New York City Center - Stage I, these potentially fiery elements prove doggedly non-combustible. Despite the assured work of a talented A-list cast led by Lee Pace and Bebe Neuwirth, and McNally's unquestionable familiarity with this milieu, proven by such previous works as Master Class and The Lisbon Traviata, there's little harmony to be found in the disparate elements of this historical night at the opera.
The show unfolds backstage at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris in 1835 where I Puritani – the final opera from the Sicilain-born Vincenzo Bellini (Pace)-- is receiving its world premiere. Bellini has brought with him four of his favorite performers for the piece: soprano Giulia Grisi (Dierdre Friel), tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (Eddie Kaye Thomas), baritone Antonio Tamburini (Lorenzo Pisoni), and bass Luigi Lablache (Ethan Philips).
As they prepare for the first act of the opera backstage at the theater (a gilded and mirrored confection of concurrent dinginess and opulence from scenic designer Santo Loquasto), the cast is a bundles of nerves, egos, and dysfunction: the sort of slightly madcap crew that can only be found among the loving families created by rehearsals. For a moment, it almost feels as if McNally may have written an opera-based answer to Michael Frayn's classic farce, Noises Off.
But as soon as the quartet of performers has finally made their way to the stage for their first appearance, and Bellini is left alone to contemplate his creation, Golden Age abruptly switches gears from comedy to an opera seria tone as Pace – who delivers a performance that's a mass of tics and grandiose gestures that signify an insecure fragility – offers what can only be described as one of the show's first arias: snippets of thoughts that impressionistically take audiences into the man's mind. Similar flights into the ethereal dramaturgy ensue throughout the play, such as when Bellini's love and patron Francesco Florimo (Will Rogers) contemplates his relationship with the composer as a sidebar reverie.
The piece also suffers from numerous other instances of unconvincing dramaturgy. For example, McNally's decision to have Bellini, Florimo, and Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth), a hot-blooded Spaniard opera great who often proves to be Bellini's muse, deliver a section of the I Puritani libretto as a spoken dramatic interlude both bewilders and bores. In addition, McNally's writing also has some curious anachronistic twists, Bellini sits center stage at the pianoforte and idly plays such modern standards as Memory from Cats, and becomes saccharinely sentimental when he receives a visit from rival composer Gioacchino Rossini (a thoughtful cameo appearance from F. Murray Abraham) who lauds Bellini's accomplishments in I Puritani.
These tonal shifts in the script are only enhanced by director Walter Bobbie's staging, which lacks any sense of subtlety. Each section of the production has an evenhanded forthrightness that never prepares audiences for the transitions or builds to create a satisfying dramatic arc.
To their credit, the ensemble dives into the material – and the often unwieldy historical details that abound in the script – with almost fearless panache. Take Pisoni furiously stuffing various fruits and vegetables into his breeches as Tamburini attempts to make himself more appealing to the women in the theater (designer Jane Greenwood provides the whole cast with an array of gorgeous period costumes) or Thomas delivering a sweet hangdog, lovesick turn as the tenor who is desperately enamored of his leading lady.
Neuwirth, whose entrance is accompanied by crashes of thunder and lightning (courtesy of sound designer Ryan Rumery and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski), turns in a performance that's so perfectly icy, it blisters. And while it's difficult to not wish that Friel, as the soprano who's cowed by the appearance of this rival performer, brought more fire to the women's verbal catfights, Friel imbues Grisi with an endearing flightiness. There's also fine work from Phillips as the perpetually disgruntled bass Lablache, and Rogers, who brings not only a lover's gentle concern to his turn as the aristocratic Florimo, but also imbues the character's almost socialist diatribes about class and art for the masses with convincing passion.
Late in the play Bellini describes how he composed the opening moments of I Puritani, building one vocal line onto another: "Like all things, it begins simply but becomes something very complex. Good or bad, well received or indifferently, no one will know what it cost me." One senses that the words of Bellini's speech apply not only to the character, but to McNally himself and the play as a whole.