Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Callas versus Callas

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Callas versus Callas

Article excerpt

Master Class Vaudeville, until 28 April The Devil and Mr Punch Barbican, until 25 February As a human, Maria Callas was a diva. As a musician, she was a divinity. In the early Seventies she came down from Olympus to share her wisdom with us mortals and gave a series of open classes at the Julliard in New York. These seminars inspired Terrence McNally to create a full-scale portrait of opera's greatest star.

The play opens as a biting slice of character comedy as Callas inflicts her brand of 'coaching' (i. e. , character assassination) on three wannabe soloists. It's amazing. She's back. The legend walks the earth again in all her gorgeous and contradictory coloration. She's exacting, brilliant, charming, shy, arrogant, needy, fragile, evasive, fiery, frigid, miserable, exuberant. She's magnificently paranoid and heroically lonely. She's aphoristic too. 'Rivals?' she quivers imperiously.

'How could I have rivals when no one could do what I could?'

Her devotion to her craft is obsessive.

She scolds a struggling soloist for failing to enunciate both 't's in Macbetto. The asides about her colleagues, 'Joan Sutherland - a 12-foot Lucia de Lammermoor', are hilarious but this sort of backstage bitchery can only take us so far. We need meat. So the script plunders her life history and comes up with a medley of Dear Diary entries, which are glued, rather creakily, to the structure.

Callas tells us about the war (it was tough), her early career (she was fat), her stardom (she loved it), her first marriage (he was old), her second marriage (he was rich and rude and dumped her for Jackie), her loneliness (it was tough, again, like the war), but she reveals nothing we haven't heard before.

In tackling Callas's musical genius, the show takes a risk. She gives a running commentary on her greatest arias as they're being belted out over the loudspeakers.

Callas on Callas should be fascinating. But this doubling up turns it into Callas versus Callas. It hardly works. A finale is needed and the script creates a bust-up with a truculent young soprano whose abrasive self-confidence Callas warms to. Pretty contrived, really, but it carries the show, staggering a little, to the final curtain.

Tyne Daly, the star, is a surprise pack45 age. In the 1980s she was one half of Cagney and Lacey, although no one can remember which half, not even Cagney or Lacey. She captures Callas's self-pitying flamboyance easily enough, prowling the stage, all scary eyebrows, big hair and darting black eyes. …

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