Terrence McNally loves opera. Besides writing plays like The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class, he has written opera libretti, contributed to Opera News, and been a frequent guest on the Met’s Opera Quiz. When an important premiere or a significant singer’s debut takes place, expect to see McNally there. His love for opera is unbounded.
But McNally gives his love, like some doomed operatic hero, “not wisely but too well.” His love and his lack of wisdom about it have shared equally in the shaping—more accurately, “misshaping”—of Golden Age (Manhattan Theatre Club), which ostensibly takes place backstage at an important premiere: the first-ever performance, on January 24, 1835, at the Theatre-Italien in Paris, of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani.
The Puritans, to translate its title, scored a gigantic success that night, and is still often revived today. Every coloratura soprano sings its hit tune, the wedding polonaise, “Son vergin vezzosa.” The singers who created its four leading roles became famous all over Europe as “the Puritani quartet”: the soprano Giulia Grisi (Dierdre Friel), the tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (Eddie Kaye Thomas), the baritone Antonio Tamburini (Lorenzo Pisoni), and the basso Luigi Lablache (Ethan Phillips). The next year, minus Rubini, they became three-fourths of an even more celebrated quartet in Gaetano Donizetti’s still-cherished comic masterpiece, Don Pasquale.
No famous mishaps marred the Puritani premiere, so McNally has invented some probability-stretching incidents to keep his backstage bustling. Instead of witnessing the public’s reaction to his work’s first hearing, neurasthenic, sickly Bellini (Lee Pace) alternately rants and mopes, attended by his adoring patron, protégé, and possibly lover, Francesco Florimo (Will Rogers). The singers quarrel, fret, backbite, and throw hissy fits over who is or isn’t in the house. Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth), Grisi’s rival, turns up unexpectedly from Naples to trigger several forms of factitious havoc. Bellini, who in real life died of some intestinal ailment, intermittently suffers spasms of Traviata-like tubercular coughing. For a finish, the aging, gout-ridden Rossini (F. Murray Abraham) hobbles in to smooth everything over.
While full of opera lore and opera data, the show’s busy back-and-forth bears minimal resemblance to anything dramatic, least of all anything that might have occurred, then or now, at an actual opera house during a performance. For starts, you have to imagine such a house with no impresario, stage manager, crew, dressers, or even a stage doorman, and only one tiny page boy (Coco Monroe) to do all the dirty work. McNally’s indefatigably detailed knowledge of Bellini’s score, his biography, the lives and quirks of his singers, and the musical world around them functions here as a mere appliqué of flatly stated facts onto a cardboard-thin set of arbitrary situations that arbitrarily reverse as needed. Grisi and Malibran loathe but adore and honor each other; Bellini despises the absent Donizetti as a talentless opportunist, but would rather gush over his favorite Donizetti melody than listen to his own premiere.
Even more maddening than the arbitrariness are the half-translations and the jokey anachronisms by which McNally, like a guilty lover, tries to make his exotic subject appeal simultaneously to aficionados and the untutored. The characters address each other by American nicknames (Vincenzo becomes “Vince” or “Vinnie”); the singing offstage is in Italian, but opera titles are given in English. Bellini dreams, as Verdi did in real life, of composing a King Lear opera; the melodies he improvises for it include the theme from The Godfather and “Memory” from Cats. It’s all done out of love—McNally adores opera so passionately that even mocking it or trashing it become, for him, ways to salute it.
Regrettably, to the rest of us such love can only seem a muddle-headed amour fou. At the script’s best moments, when McNally, through Bellini, rhapsodizes about what opera can be, we follow him gladly. But these verbal flights take off from no solid ground, and arrive nowhere. It’s enormous praise of Pace that he can scoop up the jokes, the petulant cattiness, and the tantrums into a febrile, multi-hued performance from which the grandeur seems to arise naturally. Nobody else in the cast, struggling with McNally’s patchwork text under Walter Bobbie’s heavy-footed direction, comes anywhere close to opera’s magic.