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March 31, 2010

Terrence McNally's 'Golden Age' spices up opera history

The Kennedy Center is awash in opera these days, but not in the usual sense. Three provocative, opera-centric plays by Terrence McNally are running in repertory on three different stages, connected by a common thread -- the legacy of the ever-compelling Maria Callas.

Two of the works are deeply wrapped up in the soprano who conquered the opera world with her distinctive timbre, imperfect technique and stunning emotional honesty. "The Lisbon Traviata" gets its name from one of the many live performances by Callas that used to be coveted by pirate-recording collectors (now readily available). Although the singer is neither a character nor the primary plot-driving force in the play, her spirit is felt in some way or another at every turn. (My review is posted elsewhere on the Sun site.)

"Master Class" takes as its starting point the singer's famous sessions with Juilliard students in 1971 and '72, using that platform to create a mesmerizing glimpse into the woman behind the legend. (I'll be seeing this revival on Thursday.)

And then there's "Golden Age," McNally's fanciful vision of backstage on the opening night of Bellini's "I Puritani," Jan. 24, 1835, in Paris. Here, Callas serves as a sort of a pre-echo. Her recording of that opera is the one played throughout the play, and the character of mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran -- "La Malibran," as she was called by her devoted followers -- becomes very much a Callas-like presence in the second act.

"Golden Age" is an intriguing work, one that manages to be

several things at once -- history lesson, personality study, a discourse on the nature of fame and talent and temperament. McNally doesn't attempt a literal re-creation. His language is totally 21st century, expletives included, and wonderfully bitchy one-liners fly by at a good clip. Characters are drawn mostly with broad strokes, and the action gets a little Marx Brothers-y at times (their greatest film was "A Night at the Opera," after all), but a seriousness and sympathy beneath the surface can always be felt.

The "Puritani" premiere, one of the most celebrated occasions in all of opera, certainly provides a wealth of material to run with, and McNally has a field day drawing out the individualistic tics of Bellini, full of nerves, charm and illness; Giulia Grisi, the silvery-voiced soprano wondering how many jewels to wear onstage; Giovanni Rubini, the stupendously gifted tenor anxious to prove he's got the high notes; Antonio Tamburini, the clarion baritone with equal parts vanity and insecurity; and Luigi Lablache, the sonorous, sensible bass. (The four singers, then at the height of the fame and powers, became known after that opening night as "the 'Puritani' Quartet.")

Added to this colorful assortment are Grisi's rival Malibran, who would inspire Bellini to write a mezzo version of "Puritani"; Francesco Florimo, Bellini's lifelong friend and, in McNally's view, lover (some scholars will dispute that possibility, but the circumstantial evidence is awfully persuasive); and the dean of Italian opera at the time, Rossini.

For non-opera buffs, "Golden Age" may not be terribly interesting, but for anyone who loves Bellini, bel canto and backstage back-stabbing, this is an irresistible concoction.

The Philadelphia Theatre Company's premiere production from 2009, with its vivid set by Santo Loquasto, has been imported to the Kennedy Center. There's a new director, Walter Bobbie, who paces things deftly and gets a lively response from the players.

The agile and arresting Jeffrey Carlson makes Bellini a compelling figure, an operatic Algernon from "The Importance of Being Earnest," with hands and feet a-flutter in wonderfully expressive ways. Marc Kudisch nearly steals the show with his delicious preening as the cocky Tamburini ("a satyr with high notes"). Christopher Michael McFarland effectively conveys the likable, hopelessly romantic nature of Rubini. Hoon Lee makes a vibrant Leblache. Rebecca Brooksher could use a little more nuance, but does an amusing turn as Grisi. Amanda Mason Warren captures Malibran's mix of divahood and womanhood in telling fashion. Like Judi Dench in "Shakespeare in Love," George Morfogen makes the most of his brief stage time as Rossini. It's an award-worthy performance, one that creates a remarkably detailed portrait with the subtlest of vocal inflections and physical expressions (the audience gave him an ovation as he exited the scene at the performance I attended). Roe Hartrampf is not nearly as polished an actor as the others, but he conveys enough of Florimo's charm to do the job.

"Golden Age," which runs through Sunday, creaks a little when the text switches back and forth from historical context (one character even helpfully recites the date) to witticism to historical context to schtick. There are occasional quirky bits, too. Why, for example, does Bellini play "Stormy Weather," "Hello, Dolly" and the like on the piano? But, in the end, what hits you is McNally's passion for the subject matter, his ability to animate the distant past so imaginatively and affectionately. This breezy production honors that exceptional creativity.

PHOTOS BY MARK GARVIN COURTESY OF THE KENNEDYCENTER (Jeffrey Carlson as Bellini, Amanda Mason Warren as Malibran)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:21 AM | | Comments (1)


Dennis -- In case you missed it...

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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