Opera queens will rejoice over the staging of Terrence McNallly’s Golden Age, a backstage drama about the life and love of composer Vincenzo Bellini, right before his death at the age of 33.
Lee Pace plays Bellini as a composer who is completely wrapped up in his work, living only for the resonant sounds of the tenors and sopranos. His character is also deeply wrapped up in himself, to a high egotistical level. To his credit, he admits as much, calling his ego "monstrous," which is in itself redeeming. In addition, he cuts quite a figure in his front-button trousers, handsome with legs as long as the day.
On the night in question -- January 24, 1825 -- Bellini sits backstage at the Theatre-Italian in Paris, while his new work, "The Puritans" is being staged by Europe’s four best singers. Among these singers is "Star Trek" alumni Ethan Phillips as a Wildean-spouting bass singer Luigi Lablache, fussy soprano Giulia Grisi (Dierde Friel), tenor Giovanni Battista Rabini (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Lorenzo Pisoni as baritone Antonio Tamburini.
In an early scene, all four come together with Bellini to humblebrag about their accomplishments, the most modest of which is Phillips saying, "God, your son was a carpenter; we are singers, that is our craft."
Similar bons mot flow throughout the show, such as the quip, "Modesty is the camouflage of the mediocre; the truly talented know who they are," and "Reports of my demise are wildly premature."
Although he craves the approval of the bourgeoisie, he is at the same time above all of it, promising to show the French what opera is really about, quipping, "God created man, but Italians created opera!"
The set is a cluttered backstage at the Paris opera, complete with dressing rooms, flowers from adoring fans, assorted set pieces and gear and a piano for Bellini to tinkle out his new arias. The actual singing happens offstage (including Maria Callas recordings), and perhaps they made walls thicker back in the 1800s, but the cast seemed to be carrying on a bit loud while the "show" was in progress.
Accompanied by his lover, rich patron of the arts Francesco Florimo (Will Rogers), Bellini tries to keep death at bay. He suffers from a consumptive cough; although Bellini apparently died of an intestinal disorder, fainting spells and a bloody handkerchief are much more compelling set pieces than onstage pants-shitting.
Rogers’ character is a stalwart friend, fetching blood oranges and administering laudanum, but his acting skills are wasted as here Bellini’s sycophantic, loyal lover. He reminded me of nothing more than Katherine Hepburn, crying over her boozehound lover Spencer Tracy.
At one point, he recalls being in bed and watching Bellini at his piano, enraptured in his music. "The world had its Puritan Quartet, but I had Bellini," he quips, sadly. To his credit, he does at one point bridle against this, telling Bellini curtly, "You won’t do better than me." At least he, too, is handsome and tall.
Much is made of surprise appearances in the audience of Giulia’s archrival Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth), as well as famous composer Rossini (played by F. Murray Abraham). Although Rossini’s arrival is something of a "Waiting for Guffman" pretense -- he doesn’t show up until the final moments of the show -- "The Malibran" shows up mid-way through, to unnerve Giulia with a much too tepid catfight, and to come to the rescue by singing her offstage music into the soprano’s mad scene.
Her appearance also seems to invigorate Bellini, as he recalls their past as lovers, and compares the affection he feels for her verses that for Florimo. They share in common their monstrous egos, as she describes herself as the "deus ex machina" of Bellini’s operas.
Neuwirth is always a treat to behold, but as an aging soprano whose voice is faltering, her appearance is at odds with the intimidating sexual conquistador that her reputation seems to suggest as "The most notorious and fascinating woman in Europe; she will eat you alive and pick her teeth with your bones." The characters’ insistence on referring to herself in the third person is somewhat off-putting.
Thomas does a fine job as the acclaimed tenor, hitting the high F note that is to make him a star. But he is brought down by his homely appearance, rejected by Giulia when he makes a marriage proposal.
Pisoni, on the other hand, is dead handsome, but ostensibly poorly endowed. He spends most of the play shoving piees of fruit down his pants front. During the performance, I witnessed him put no less than four pommes in his codpiece. God help the apple crumble that emerges from that oven.
Friel does a fine job as the portly soprano, although much of her onstage time is spent fussing over the jewels she will adorn herself with for her next scene. She seems a bit too glib, however; when another character describes her performance with, "Jesus wept," she retorts, "What paper does he write for?"
Although the crew does the most with what they are given, none of these characters seem to be very fleshed out. This includes Bellini himself, who seems wrapped up in these petty backstage dramatics. McNally could do better by letting them get in touch with their motivation.
In the end, perhaps, "Paris is no place for an Italian," as Bellini puts it. The show ends with the crowd calling for Bellini with choruses of "Brava," after which he and his lover Florimo will return to Italy to live out the rest of his short days.
As evidenced by the proliferation of older gay men in the audience, the concept of a play about Bellini’s life, work and loves is interesting enough fodder for a play. As the third installment of McNally’s so-called opera trilogy, it should provide enough operatic grist for the mill to keep the seats filled for the duration of its run.
"The Golden Age" runs through Jan. 13 at MTC at New York City Center, 131 West 55th St. For info or tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/