Golden Age

Terrence McNally’s behind-the-scenes look at 19th- century artists raises modern-day theatrical questions.

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 2, 2010

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Sing it on: Antonio Tamburini (Marc Kudisch, left) and Vincenzo Bellini (Jeffrey Carlson) belt it out in Golden Age.

Photo by mark garvin

Philadelphia Theatre Company begins 2010 with the glamorous world premiere of Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally’s Golden Age .

Set in 1834, the three-hour play takes place backstage at a Paris opera house. The occasion is the world premiere of the bel canto opera I Puritani by the Sicilian wunderkind Vincenzo Bellini (Jeffrey Carlson). The opera’s plot is unimportant to the play; McNally focuses all the attention on the opera’s composer and all-star cast.

McNally always approaches his characters with compassion, and Golden Age is no exception. The characters are imperfect, believable, and in their own ways, appealing.

Giovanni Battista Rubini (Christopher Michael McFarland) is the world’s leading tenor, but he lacks physical beauty and is as insecure about his appearance as he is certain of his vocal abilities.

Giulia Grisi (Rebecca Brooksher) is considered the most technically proficient soprano of her time but like Rubini, she has her own insecurities. Although she is Bellini’s first choice for the role, her voice lacks emotion. She is respected, but doesn’t possess the star power of her rival, mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran (the charismatic and beautiful Amanda Mason Warren).

Baritone Antonio Tamburini (the excellent Marc Kudisch) is also a gifted singer. He fancies himself a ladies’ man, but instead of relying on his own impressive physique, he inflates the apparent size of his genitalia by stuffing a cucumber or apple down the front of his pants.

The most secure member of the opera’s ensemble is the quartet’s bass, Luigi Lablache (a charming Hoon Lee). Witty and genial, Lablanche is the most relaxed and least competitive of the four.

Bellini’s idealistic boyfriend Francesco (Roe Hartrampf, in a noticeably weak portrayal) is also backstage. An aristocrat who celebrates the French Revolution, Francesco complains about opera’s elitist patrons while enjoying the wealth they lavish on his celebrity boyfriend.

If we are intrigued by Golden Age ’s other characters, we are fascinated by Carlson’s Bellini. He is extraordinarily competitive, especially with rival composer Donizetti, whom he holds in contempt. Carlson’s performance suggests a man who has resigned himself to an early death and treasures every moment of life. Gingerly moving around the stage, Carlson’s Bellini looks like a rambunctious boy forced to wear uncomfortable, fancy clothes. Consistently mesmerizing, Carlson’s extravagantly original performance dominates the production.

Although it's set in the world of 19th-century opera, much of what McNally explores in Golden Age is applicable to theater today. He raises the topics of art’s intended audience, competition among artists, self-involved performers, the artifice of performance and collision of art and real life.

“Great art is capable of killing us, that’s why there’s so little of it,” reasons the philosophical Bellini. If you’re interested in art and the people who make it, McNally’s latest is worth your time. ■

Through Feb. 14. $46-$59. Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard sts. 215.985.0420.

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