theater review

Theater review: Terrence McNally's 'Golden Age' at the Kennedy Center

(soap) opera: Jeffrey Carlson (composer Vincenzo Bellini) and Amanda Mason Warren (mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran).
(soap) opera: Jeffrey Carlson (composer Vincenzo Bellini) and Amanda Mason Warren (mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran). (Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010

Rivalries, jealousies and insecurities bubble up during the premiere of the new Bellini opera -- and as chronicled in "Golden Age," we're just talking about what happens backstage.

Terrence McNally's latest play, inaugurating a Kennedy Center mini-festival of his work, blends opera and soap opera to open a peephole into the mind of an artist as he contemplates his musical gifts, romantic attachments and mortality.

The piece, which features sumptuous gowns and other lavish costumes by designer Richard St. Clair, distills McNally's passion for opera into a comedy-drama of, alas, something less than sustained warmth, or hilarity. It does give off some tantalizing whiffs of the playwright's gift for the cutting banter among smart, wounded people, and it features a soulful turn by Jeffrey Carlson as a brittle, ailing bel canto composer tormented by doubts about the worthiness of his legacy.

But at this stage of the playmaking process (this production was unveiled in January at the Philadelphia Theatre Company), "Golden Age" lacks some of the infectious qualities that distinguish some of McNally's other opera plays: the explosive wit of "The Lisbon Traviata," for example, or the elevated idol worship of "Master Class," his illuminating biographical portrait of Maria Callas.

The good news for Washington theatergoers is that those two works form the remaining legs of the center's McNally triangle, grouped under the title "Terrence McNally's Nights at the Opera." So consider "Golden Age" a sample of more complex favors to come, a prologue establishing a base line for examining one of the performing arts through the eyes of a perceptive analyst.

"Golden Age" takes an experience any playwright knows well, the exhilaration and terrors of an opening night, and creates a drama of the tensions that weigh on a fragile artist's psyche. "Are they listening? Are they paying attention? Are they awake?" Carlson's Vincenzo Bellini asks. Indulging an urge for a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of cultural history, McNally takes us to the Italian Theater in Paris on Jan. 24, 1835, for the debut of "I Puritani" ("The Puritans"), Bellini's final opera, a love story set amid civil war in England. (The composer would die later that year, at 33.)

A certain poignancy does assert itself in "Golden Age" -- media-hounded superstars of the time, Bellini favorites such as tenor Giovanni Rubini (Christopher Michael McFarland) and soprano Giulia Grisi (Rebecca Brooksher), reflect on their prospects for immortality, when we know how fleeting the renown would be.

(In a couple of interludes, Carlson goes to the pianoforte and mindlessly plunks out the notes of what sound like "Stormy Weather" and "Hello, Dolly!"-- conveying the notion, in anachronistic Baz Lurhmann style, of what operatic music might have meant to European popular taste in the 19th century.)

"I Puritani" unfolds just out of our field of vision, just beyond set designer Santo Loquasto's vivid rendering of the backstage, adorned with chandeliers and draperies, where the singers wait for their entrances and Bellini frets over whether his towering contemporaries Donizetti and Rossini (George Morfogen) think the work is any good.

Under Walter Bobbie's workmanlike direction, much of the evening's comedy revolves, though, around the childish behavior of the egotistical soloists, whose personalities are revealed in big brush strokes of caricature. The desperate edge to some of the antics contributes to the evening's swerving tone.

Antonio Tamburini, the baritone, is a preening stud who shoves apples and even cucumbers down his tights, to the apparent swoons of the distaff half of the opera world. As played by Marc Kudisch, a Broadway actor-singer of considerable skill, Tamburini is a cousin to Gaston, the brawny extrovert of "Beauty and the Beast" -- another part Kudisch portrayed. He has also contributed memorable work at Signature Theatre, particularly as the devilish Darryl in the musical version of "The Witches of Eastwick," but his deftness is not adequately tested on this occasion.

A surfeit of hysterics afflicts Brooksher's Grisi, who is required to hyperventilate at the unexpected appearance in the wings of her dreaded rival, the celebrated mezzo-soprano of the era, Maria Malibran (Amanda Mason Warren).

Warren, in a drop-dead red gown by St. Clair, is given the evening's least enviable chore: prodded by the adoring Bellini, her Malibran is called upon to deliver a spoken operatic excerpt, which is supposed to reveal the breadth of her talent. In a scene in which someone might as well shout, "Now, act your guts out!" you have no choice but to feel for the actress.

Hoon Lee fares much better as Luigi Lablache, the bass consigned forever to afterthought status. And although he doesn't look the slightest bit Sicilian, Carlson envelops Bellini in a convincing aura of hauteur tinged with anxiety, the dispiriting worry a genius might entertain, that his gift was ephemeral.

Much of "Golden Age" seems consumed with the sense of a moment in time and whether the moment will last. Maybe with a little more across-the-board richness of character, the play will feel more durable, too.

Golden Age

by Terrence McNally. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Set, Santo Loquasto; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Ryan Rumery. With Benjamin Cook, Roe Hartrampf. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through April 4 at the Kennedy Center. Visit http://www.kennedy-center.orgor call 202-467-4600.

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