Thursday 1 March 2012

Masterclass @ The Vaudeville Theatre

Like Callas herself, I will wear my heart on my sleeve and put it out there straight away - Masterclass is a masterful piece of theatre.

Terrence McNally's play takes the form of a masterclass, based on those that Callas taught at the Juilliard School (New York) in 1970-71, just six years before her untimely death in 1977.  Three students are her willing victims, each singing arias from operas featuring strong female characters who Callas becamed renowned for performing - Amina from La Sonnambula, Lady Macbeth and, of course, Tosca.  In turn, each of the initially two-dimensional students are broken by Callas's harsh words through the intensity of the music, reflecting the pain artists must endure to reach perfection.  As they sing, we are transported into Callas's memory as she monologues on key moments of her life over recordings of the real Callas singing.  The on-stage Callas performs vicariously through the students, reminiscing on her past successes and failures.  It reflects the power of opera as high art, accessing deep-seated emotion for the sake of performance; the drama on stage paralleling a dramatic personal life.  But what is the cost of fame and stardom?  How does this affect the longevity of a career?  Is it better to have reached an artistic pinnacle and died early, than never to have reached there at all?

Terrence McNally explores these notions cleverly with a surprisingly humorous and witty script, though this is predominantly from Tyne Daley's comic timing in her portrayal of the troubled Callas.  Masterclass is not strictly biographical, but elements of Callas's life are injected into the drama to reveal a complex history - "but that's another story" she often repeats.  At times it feels less than naturalistic and the tangents and use of memory are obvious dramatic devices.  Yet these moments let music take the fore, allowing the drama to breathe and swell with the orchestra - like opera itself.  Daly does not sing - of course nothing could compare to Callas herself.  Her students meanwhile (Dianne Pilkington, Naomi O'Connell and Garrett Sorenson) not only sing excellently, but we witness the growth of their individual characters under the tuition of Callas.  Each is accompanied live on-stage by Jeremy Cohen's rather sweet repetiteur, harboring a not-so-secret admiration for Callas.

Pivotal to the success of the production is Daly's spellbinding and engaging performance.  Immediately she commands the stage as she addresses the audience directly, as if we are part of an actual class.  But this is no piece of mimicry.  Her Callas is an oxymoronic, human character - equal parts bitchy, caustic diva and endearingly broken, allowing us an insight into the woman behind the persona and make-up of 'La Divina'.  Daly offers a masterclass in acting: like Callas she does not act, she "feels" and, crucially, the audience too feels her every word.


Watch: Masterclass is performed at the Vaudeville Theatre until the 28th April.