Opera lover Terrence McNally has served up another vibrant examination of the discipline with “Golden Age,” a light-hearted fantasy about the dissonance that might have occurred backstage during the 1835 premiere of Vincenzo Bellini’s final opera, “I Puritani.” Call it a ballad of petulance, egomania and insecurity that clashes vividly with the exquisite music being performed out front. Yet the desired impact is weakened by excess in several departments and an air of predictability as the plotless vignette trudges around well-worn themes.
McNally wrote “Age” at the invitation of the Kennedy Center. The play is co-produced with Philadelphia Theatre Company, which staged its premiere in January, and is funded in part by the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays. It is being presented here as part of a three-play celebration of the playwright, along with his “Master Class” and “The Lisbon Traviata.”
Walter Bobbie directs a cast that includes Jeffrey Carlson as Bellini and Marc Kudisch as the baritone Antonio Tamburini, one of four prominent singers of the period who actually performed the opera at its glittery debut in Paris before an audience of royalty and other titans. Bobbie has generally cranked the performance of each principal to his or her melodramatic height as their characters nervously endure their opening-night jitters.
The list of requisites is fully covered here. Dueling divas? Check. Tempestuous composer? Check. Unrequited love? You betcha. Bitter rivalries? Check, check and check. Such antics are prominently featured, interspersed with ruminations about the world of opera, such as writing advice from composers and an aging soprano’s fear of losing her voice. Curiously absent is someone to play the show’s director.
The action takes place in the ornate space just off the stage at the Theatre-Italien, opulently designed by Santo Loquasto with drapes and candelabras. As performers dash in and out, and often linger, Carlson’s stressed Italian composer engages in a running diatribe about all things operatic. And what a spectacle he is, this insecure and wildly gesticulating artist, who concedes his enormous ego and numerous frailties. “My masterpiece would be an opera that cannot be performed – free, wild and unimaginable as life itself,” he muses. It’s an overwritten character, but Carlson’s freewheeling performance is generally endearing despite several tripped lines on the March 21 perf.
Kudisch clearly enjoys his role as the opera’s swaggering baritone who yearns for more prominent roles. He especially savors the evening’s running gag – his character’s penchant for embellishing his manhood with help from assorted vegetables tucked in his tights.
Rebecca Brooksher plays the soprano Giulia Grisi, a prima donna who, along with Carlson, offers an unrestrained performance. Amanda Mason Warren is enjoyable as the soprano Maria Malibran, who drops by to torment her nemesis Grisi. Although the young actress is miscast as the aging artist, she offers a vibrant and energetic perf. Hoon Lee as the bass Luigi Lablache and Christopher Michael McFarland as the tenor Giovanni Rubini provide personality and depth to the opera’s cast of egotists.
“Golden Age” offers many enjoyable moments, but might be best considered a work in progress that calls out for some judicious pruning. Fortunately, it benefits from Philadelphia Theater Company’s highly polished production, which includes Richard St. Clair’s lavish costumes and Ryan Rumery’s sound design, which keeps the opera music in the background at precisely the right levels.