Master Class, Vaudeville Theatre, London’s West End, February 2012Posted on 8 February 2012
Excerpts from Bellini’s La Sonnambula, Puccini’s Tosca, and Verdi’s Macbeth by young singers trying out their talents in front of Maria Callas. Sometimes she stops them even before they’ve uttered their first note, and it’s glorious fun, with Tyne Daly giving a stunning portrayal of the diva. She’s imperious, impatient, and intensely musical. “Just listen. Everything is in the music”.
Indeed it is, and Callas was one of the great musical actresses of the twentieth century. At the start of Act II she is holding the score of Bellini’s Norma, but when her third student appears and suggests she could sing the heroine’s opening aria Casta Diva, Callas tells her to forget it. Quite right too. Casta Diva is very hard, and too easy to mess up, even for top-flight singers whom she rather rudely compares to performing seals. She mentions names such as Scotto and Sutherland, referred to by the press as her ‘rivals’, but “How can you have rivals when no-one can do what you do?” When the third singer returns to stage, after throwing up in her dressing room, Callas tells her she could sing Mimi (in Bohème) or Michaela (in Carmen), but not the big dramatic roles such as Norma or Lady Macbeth because she’s too young. This elicits the response that Callas herself sang Medea when she was young. “I was never young — I couldn’t afford it”, and she goes on to mention the word Mut in German, meaning something like courage felt from the heart.
Callas had a heart, and this finely crafted play by Terrence McNally shows how it was seriously wounded towards the end of her career by that Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who dumped her and married Jackie Kennedy. Maria Callas was a forthright, determined and ultimately tragic figure, but the presentation never flags and is hugely witty in parts, helped by excellent direction from Stephen Wadsworth. I laughed out loud at several points, sometimes without a word being spoken.
But this play is also about the music and singing, with Dianne Pilkington in Act I delivering excerpts from Amina’s arias in Sonnambula while Callas stops her at almost every breath. Then as Cavaradossi in Tosca, Garrett Sorenson shows he hasn’t a clue what church the hero is in, or even what’s really going on, but after a brief conflict with Callas he launches into that early Act I aria Recondita armonia, and she is transfixed. When performing in Tosca herself she was always waiting to make her first entrance singing Mario! Mario! off-stage, and had no time to admire the beauty of the tenor’s voice. Finally, young Irish mezzo-soprano Naomi O’Connell gave a dramatic performance as Lady Macbeth.
This has transferred from its Broadway success, where Tyne Daly and Garrett Sorenson played the same roles, as did Jeremy Cohen as the engagingly laconic pianist. If you like opera, it’s a must-see, and if you don’t it is still a fascinating portrayal of a great performer, showing intense dedication to her art. But most of all it’s great fun with never a dull moment.
Performances continue until April 28 — for details click here.