12/10/2012 08:14 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

Stage Door: Volpone, Golden Age

Long before the avarice of the rich was an election-year topic, Ben Jonson was lacerating the vices of the wealthy, cravenly worshiping at the altar of Mammon. In his 1607 Jacobean farce Volpone, artistically staged off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel, Jonson lampoons humanity's rapaciousness for self-gratification, both carnal and financial.

Politics and religion may rail against sin, but only satire can expose its universality in such an entertaining way.

That trait is personified in Volpone (Stephen Spinella), who feigns illness to finagle lavish offerings from his "clients," greedy Venetians who hope to inherit his estate. Volpone's obsession with his gold -- "my saint" -- is shared by his visitors: Corbaccio (Alvin Epstein) Corvino (Michael Mastro) and Voltore (Rocco Sisto). The trio will go to any length, however base, to enlarge their coffers.

Because Volpone pretends to greet them at death's door, they eagerly await his demise. His servant Mosca (Cameron Folmar) persuades the would-be heirs to make added sacrifices, even agreeing to prostitute a wife (Christina Pumagiega) or betray a son. The trickery, delivered in witty, colorful language, underscores Jonson's point: Men will do anything for money. So will women. Tovah Feldshuh deliciously portrays a social climber happy to bed the decaying Volpone.

The over-the-top comedy skewers the parasitic, unethical rich. A morality play, it implicates man's baser desires, complete with outrageous plot twists. Folmar, Mastro and Spinella dive into their parts, as does the seasoned cast, delivering excellent performances all round. The set, ink drawings of Venice, clever musical interludes and Clint Ramos' costumes draw audiences into the action, deftly directed by Jesse Berger.

This is the first major New York revival of Jonson's masterwork in 50 years, and it's staged with flair. What's better than seeing the amoral rich get their comeuppance?

Two centuries later, Terrence McNally addresses the back-stage drama of bel canto opera in Golden Age, now at City Center. "God created man, but Italians created opera," explains composer Vincenzo Bellini (Lee Pace) proudly. Bellini, famous for several operas, including Norma and The Stranger, is in Paris for the January 1835 debut of I Puritani.

McNally, who showcased his passion for opera in The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class, again demonstrates his considerable knowledge. But despite his passion for the subject, Golden Age is far less dramatic that his previous works. It features the esteemed "Puritani quartet": baritone Antonio Tamburini (a wonderful Lorenzo Pisoni) forever padding his pants with fruit, put-upon bass Luigi Lablache (Ethan Philips), pitch-perfect soprano Giulia Grisi (Dierdre Friel) and tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (Eddie Kay Thomas), blessed with expressive coloratura and in love with Grisi.

The behind-the-scenes love affairs, gossip and rivalry can be fun, especially since McNally is recreating historic figures. But for most of the first act, we hear the usual anxieties and excitement. The only real action is the progression of I Puritani.

We also learn the legendary mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth) and Rossini (F. Murray Abraham), one of Bellini's rivals and renowned opera composer, is in the audience. Bellini, forever expounding on past and future operas, as well as the state of his rivals, such as Donizetti and Rossini, is as obsessed with the performance as the reaction of his peers. Pace captures his egoism and insecurities well.

Despite the glorious music, Golden Age is curiously sedate, since the action is minimal. The focus is on stage, not off. As Malibran notes when musing over her past affair with Bellini, "a broken heart can mend, a shattered career is forever." The performances are solid, save for a flat Will Rogers, who plays Bellini's patron and sometime lover Francesco Florimo.

Yet for opera lovers, seeing such famous recreations is probably its own reward. So are Santo Loquasto's lovely set, Peter Kaczorowski's sensitive lighting and Jane Greenwood's costumes; all stylishly create the world of mid-19th century opera. There is something touching in Bellini's realization that his work will outlive him. And it's a potent reminder that such music speaks a higher truth.