Heap enough adoration and praise onto a performer, and eventually his sense of self-importance will get irritatingly out of hand. It’s a given. But many forget the corollary: the more highly he thinks of himself, the more opportunities he has for insecurity. Directed by Walter Bobbie, Terrence McNally’s play Golden Age – now seeing its New York debut – has a bit of fun with this paradox.
The play takes place entirely backstage at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris on 24th January 1835: opening night of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani. His role composing his masterpiece over, Bellini spends the whole of the opera waiting anxiously for signs of acclaim or rejection from his audience, which contains the important artists of the day and members of Europe’s high society.
The staging is interesting, giving us the sense of mirroring the opera’s audience, who we never see; but this play isn’t really about opera, which is nice for those of us who don’t know anything about it. It’s about a handful of musically gifted people coping with the various anxieties and insecurities that come with their talents.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot of dramatic conflict. (Interestingly, not a lot of time is spent on the theoretically bigger issue of Bellini’s mortality, seeing as how he’s been depositing a good bit of blood into his handkerchief with each cough.) But the impressive thing about Golden Age is that it does just fine with a relatively light plot, relying instead on the strength of its characters to provide the interest and tension.
Lee Pace as Bellini is spot on with often over-the-top portrayals of the wrenching emotions and melodrama you’d expect from a great composer who is at once delighted and tormented by his work. Pace’s Bellini both relishes and loathes his opening night, seeking recognition while lamenting the vulnerability of being in the spotlight. Obsessed with the audience’s reaction throughout the opera, Bellini even resorts to asking the young page boy his opinion—taking breaks occasionally to marvel at his singers’ voices or enjoy bits of his own score. Everything he says is pulled from the heart with competing but complementary accompaniments of agony and joy.
Pace doesn’t hold back, and Bellini’s singers follow suit. The “Puritan Quartet” of his opera—bass Luigi Lablache (Ethan Philips), baritone Antonio Tamburini (Lorenzo Pisoni), tenor Giovanni Rubini (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Giulia Grisi (Dierdre Friel), the soprano—flit in and out of the scenes, worrying over notes and talking up their own talents to each other. All the while, they engage in minor dramas with one another, over professional rivalry and unrequited love, unwittingly mirroring in real time the dramas they are acting out on stage.
If that behavior sounds a bit unrefined for 19th-century opera types, consider the ages of the characters. Most were in their twenties or thirties on opening night, Bellini included. As McNally says, “These were all young people when they were doing it. They were the Madonnas, and Lady Gagas, and Justin Biebers of their day, really.”
The interactions between the singers are fun, but not as interesting as those between Bellini and the people he admires or cares deeply for: his once-lover and close friend Maria Malibran (a perfectly cast Bebe Neuwirth) and his current lover and protector Francesco Florimo (Will Rogers, whose performance is a little flat). It’s through those two that Bellini is able to find some relief from his own insecurities, and perhaps come to terms—in a very limited way—with the likelihood of that bloody hankie making I Puritani his last opera. (There’s no spoiler here; like any story based on history, someone put the ending on Wikipedia years ago.)
Most stabilizing for Bellini, though, is his brief encounter with the elder statesman of the opera world, fellow composer Gioacchino Rossini (F. Murray Abraham). Not all colleagues are rivals, Rossini reminds the younger composer—thereby countering most of the play’s conflict with a humbling lesson about ego management.
Most of the characters, unfortunately, are absent for it.