Over the years, opera has been a major subject for Terrence McNally. In addition to writing libretti for operas like Jake Heggie's DEAD MAN WALKING, McNally has focused in his plays on opera, opera singers and opera fans. THE LISBON TRAVIATA is a portrait of a group of lonely, sad, anything but proud opera queens who live for Maria Callas the way other sad homosexuals of an early period worshipped Judy Garland. A few years later, McNally wrote his most commercially successful play, MASTER CLASS, very loosely based on Callas's Juilliard master classes. Now we have GOLDEN AGE, with Callas playing in the background, a depiction of the backstage dramas at the 1835 opening night of Vincenzo Bellini's I PURITANI, starring the most celebrated singers of its time. McNally uses this event to explore questions about the nature of genius, the primacy of performer over composer, the relationship of love to art. The central relationships in the play are those between Bellini (Lee Pace) and his devoted lover, Francesco Florimo (Will Rogers) and the composer and his muse, soprano Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth), the Callas of her day. This will have special meaning for opera fans, but McNally offers enough entertaining backstage banter to make the play interesting to a wider audience, at least the relatively sophisticated audience at the Manhattan Theater Club. We have a vain baritone who stuffs a cucumber down his trousers to enhance his virility, dueling bitchy divas, middle-aged basses sick of playing father figures. Bellini is the self-absorbed romantic artist without whom none of this would be happening. He is also dying (tuberculosis, though he really died of an intestinal infection). One major study of opera is titled A SONG OF LOVE AND DEATH and, at its best, this is what GOLDEN AGE offers. While GOLDEN AGE deals with opera as an historic form, it doesn't raise the key question about the future of opera -- how it can continue primarily as a museum. In the Golden Age, new operas were constantly being written and performed. Can it survive merely recycling works from the past?
The most fascinating aspect of GOLDEN AGE is its parallels with bel canto opera: long "arias" - speeches, ensembles, duets, even a mad scene of sorts, mirroring the structure of I PURITANI. The play demands actors of wide emotional and vocal range. Alas, except for excellent performances from Will Rogers and Bebe Neuwirth, the cast ranges from OK (almost everyone else) to mediocre (Lee Pace). My spouse put it perfectly when he said Pace is an exponent of the Nicholas Cage school of acting. His monotone voice can only go from loud to louder; his emotional range is equally narrow. We should feel the spirit of Bellini's music in his performance. I didn't believe for a minute that Pace's Bellini could have written the exquisite music of I PURITANI. Because of his performance, I never understood the adoration other people feel for the composer. If the play seemed tiresome in spots, particularly in the last half house, it was because Pace didn't do anything with the material. Rogers' Florimo seemed much younger than Pace's Bellini though historically they were the same age.
So a diverting play. I felt what I often feel at McNally's plays -- that I am watching a draft that needs revision. It sags in places and takes too long to end. But then again, I PURITANI, for all its melodic glories, is not the most tightly structured work.
GOLDEN AGE by Terrence McNally. Manhattan Theatre Club at the New York City Center. December 29, 2012.