Living in the world of Beyonce and Rihanna makes it hard to conjure up an era when the word “diva” was reserved for people of such altitudinous vocal talent and bad manners that only evocations of divinity could do them justice.
So I was happy to see “Golden Age,” which features two divas whose fame flickers into our own day: Maria Malibran and Giulia Grisi.
Terrence McNally’s new play, at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, takes place backstage at the 1835 world premiere of “I Puritani,” a sweetly melodic opera by Vincenzo Bellini set in the time of Oliver Cromwell.
You may recall that his bowl haircut made him the chief Roundhead in the ferocious battles against the frivolously locked Royalists.
In one of many unlikely plot turns, Cromwell pardons everyone, and Elvira, who has spent the entire opera going mad, gets her marbles back plus the tenor.
In “Golden Age,” we hear bits of the opera in a wonderful old recording featuring Maria Callas whenever the singers stop yacking and walk up a tiny staircase to an unseen stage.
Bellini hangs around his piano, worries about his reviews and rivals, and coughs a lot. “Puritani” will be his last opera.
That he wrote the role of Elvira for Grisi has made his old muse Malibran mad and sad.
The two ladies represent different camps of singing that barely survive into our own homogenized soundscapes but foretell the wars fought with radishes and tomatoes at La Scala between the worshippers of Callas and Renata Tebaldi.
Grisi is note perfect; Malibran is wildly emotional. They hate each other, of course, in a grand sort of way that makes for good comedy when Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth) suddenly arrives backstage and Grisi (Dierdre Friel) collapses into a fake faint.
Neuwirth brings glamour, wit and wisdom to the role of a star who knows her singing days are coming to an end.
She doesn’t appear until an entire act has passed filled with awkwardly posing singers dropping biographical information and engaging in stupid banter. Coming from the genius of “Master Class,” in which Callas drifts from the stage of Juilliard into the grand memory palaces of her past, McNally’s backstage conceit here is oddly pedestrian.
The idea that singers would spend a stressful opening night shouting at each other backstage is unbelievable and dramatically confining.
Singers don’t carry on the way they do in “Golden Age.” They’re more likely to vocalize before a performance. Some knit, throw up or stare crazily, quietly into the mirror. They call mother. I once met a soprano who encountered God in her dressing room and stopped singing for years.
(Why on earth didn’t McNally place the first act during a rehearsal, where the performers are a lot more fun? Rehearsals bring out the worst in them -- especially when the tenor wears throat-clogging, offensive cologne.)
We get a sense of what might have been when McNally cuts loose and has Bellini playing music he will never live to write and it sounds a lot like Nino Rota and Richard Wagner.
Still “Golden Age” takes on a lovely shimmer when Neuwirth picks up Grisi’s score and intones the words of the mad Elvira, as Bellini (Lee Pace) and his friend Florimo (Will Rogers) add their voices. McNally takes as fact that Bellini was bisexual.
Pace is most affecting, especially in his later scenes, though I wonder if a dying man would speak quite so emphatically. He touches the heart when he sings in a hoarse voice an aria he wished he’d written: Donizetti’s “Una furtiva lagrima.”
The other characters are more obviously sketched by McNally and directed so by Walter Bobbie (he of the inspired “School for Lies” with its leitmotiv of flying bread). Yet all work hard: Ethan Phillips as Luigi Lablache, the bass who never gets the girl and must wear ugly brown costumes; Eddie Kaye Thomas as the jealous Rubini, who is rejected by the amusingly bovine Friel, and Lorenzo Pisoni, who stuffs cucumbers in his pants as the baritone Tamburini.
F. Murray Abraham makes a crusty late appearance as Gioacchino Rossini, complaining about his gout. Now there’s an interesting character worthy of a play all his own. At the height of his fame, just 37, Rossini retired to spend the next four decades hosting parties at his house in Paris.
Through Jan. 6, 2013, at New York City Center Stage 1, 131 W. 55th St. Information: +1-212-581-1212; http://www.manhattantheaterclub.com. Rating: ***
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(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
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