12/05/2012 01:22 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

"Golden Age" Review: A Night At The Opera With McNally And Bellini

At its heart, Golden Age, Terrence McNally's charming new play at the Manhattan Theater Club, is a passionate love story. Actually, it's several love stories, but what makes the play so appealing is the one between the playwright and the world of opera.

It's hardly a secret that McNally is a consummate opera buff. There could be an entire subgenre of his work under the heading "the opera plays." He's written at least four - Master Class, The Lisbon Traviata, Prelude and Liebestod, and now Golden Age - that directly deal with opera themes and there are operatic references scattered throughout other works, not to mention his libretti.

In Golden Age McNally is basically having some fun at the expense of opera snobs, but he also touches on the anguish that accompanies creative genius.

All of the action occurs backstage of the Theatre des Italiens in Paris on the stormy night of Jan. 25, 1835 where the world premiere of Vincenzo Bellini's last opera, I Puritani, is taking place. Bellini's cast, a lineup of the greatest singers of the day - Grisi, Rubini Tamburini, Lablache - are indulging in little pre-performance games of one-upmanship. In fact, the other love stories in the play are mostly those of the singers enamored of their own voices.

Bellini was one of a trio of composers who epitomized the bel canto era of Italian opera, the golden age of the title, heirs of Mozart and forerunners of Verdi and Puccini. The other two - Rossini and Donizetti - are both in the opening night audience in McNally's play, and Maria Malibran, another reigning diva of the time and the soprano Grisi's main rival, also arrives unexpectedly from Rome.

All of this provides the backstage drama and humor for McNally's play as the prima donnas duel, and the tenor, baritone, and bass all cross verbal swords while the performance proceeds.
Tensions mount as the opera progresses offstage. Donizetti sends a note asking to pay his compliments, but Bellini refuses even to see the composer he regards as unworthy (while admitting "Una Furtiva Lagrima" is one of the greatest songs ever written), though he craves the approval of Rossini. The jealousy reaches a peak when Bellini learns his entire cast has been signed to sing in a new Donizetti opera, Don Pasquale.

The staging of Golden Age by Walter Bobbie is enhanced by recordings of I Puritani that play in the background throughout, as though the audience is hearing what is going on out front in the opera house. The action even pauses on occasion as the characters listen to certain arias from Bellini's final masterpiece. Ryan Rumery's sound design, which includes Bellini playing a backstage piano, is remarkable.

There is not a weak link in the cast. Lee Pace is alternately ebullient and pensive as an ailing Bellini. Bebe Neuwirth is stunning and regal as Malibran, a portrait that suggests Callas in her prime. Will Rogers is a model of devotion as Francesco Florimo, the Sicilian nobleman who was his compatriot's patron, and F. Murray Abraham, no stranger to playing composers of the era, delivers a fine cameo turn as a gouty Rossini.

Dierdre Friel, Lorenzo Pisoni, Ethan Philips, and Eddie Kaye Thomas are all convincingly self-centered as Grisi, Tamburini, Lablache, and Rubini, respectively.

Bellini, who is clearly very ill during McNally's play, died months later at the age of 33. Malibran herself died a year to the day after Bellini from injuries she suffered from a fall from a horse. She was 28. But Bellini's operas still form a major part of the bel canto repertory, and his fierce competition with Donizetti is still going strong 175 years after his death. Life is short, Hippocrates reminds us, but art is long.