Corrections or additions?

Critic: Nicole Plett. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February

23, 2000. All rights

reserved.

Review: `Master Class’

Art is domination," pronounces Maria Callas in

Terrence McNally’s free-associating fantasy "Master Class."

"The audience is the enemy — we have to bring you to your

knees."

At George Street Playhouse, an intimate space perfect for a master

class, real or imaginary, Maria Tucci is trying on the role of Maria

Callas, the self-described "monstre sacre," as written by

McNally. The playwright won the 1996 Tony for the production in which

Zoe Caldwell created the title role. McNally clearly has a trunkload

of ideas and opinions about the sensational diva — as do we all.

And for the long-term devotee this can cause a clash between his set

of fantasies and our own.

As directed by Ethan McSweeny, Tucci enters with a friendly opening

salute and an insincere request for "No applause," and at

once strikes us as a surprisingly genial Callas. Tucci has a firm

grasp on the Callas "look" — a stunning black silk

pantsuit

set off by a red paisley shawl, her shoulder length black hair pulled

back into a clip. James Youmans’s set adds a sense of verisimilitude

to the production with his wood-paneled music studio furnished with

a Steinway, and we as the the observers of the master class.

Playing Callas as a woman of 48, Tucci only occasionally rises to

the kind of imperious bearing one imagines of this grand diva.

(Certainly

those of us who interact professionally with successful performing

artists — especially those past their prime — are regularly

hit by the force of this fictional royal line.) Boasting eyes in the

back of her head, Callas insists that every artist must have them

— "or end with a dagger in your back."

McNally bases his work on real master classes conducted by Callas

at the Juilliard School in 1971 and ’72, brilliantly cutting away

from the real scene into Callas’s tortured memories of her grand

career.

Although she did go on to perform publicly in 1973 and ’74, by this

time the voice that Callas had once used so recklessly (in the words

of one of the play’s angry students) was gone.

Born in 1923, Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos,

Callas transformed herself through sheer willful determination from

a frumpy diva into a glamorous international celebrity. In the 1940s,

her Italian debut was followed in short order by her marriage to

Giovanna

Battista Meneghini, a wealthy manufacturer 29 years her senior. During

the 1950s she reigned supreme as the Prima Donna Assoluta of

La Scala and every other opera house. By the end of the ’50s, she

shed more weight and Meneghini, replacing him with her

multi-millionaire

lover, Aristotle Onassis.

McNally has produced a text dripping with withering anecdotes and

scandalous tidbits. His portrait of Onassis, who may or may not have

told her, "Everyone is for sale and I bought you," is coarse

and repugnant. Comparing herself to Medea, Callas recalls how Ari

abandoned her "for a younger woman, a woman of importance,"

the First Widow, Jackie Kennedy. Incontestable is the fact that each

wrenching upheaval in Callas’s life had its physical price. She never

saw old age, dying of a heart attack at age 53.

"These composers knew the human heart. All we have to do is

listen,"

says Callas with deep feeling as she works with a student on Amina’s

aria from Bellini’s "La Sonambula." Her devotional sentiment

is set in crazy relief later, during Verdi’s "Macbeth," when

she urges her singer on with the words, "The music here is

ridiculous

— ignore it!" And when she tells her terrified young student,

"these people really existed" — that is Amina, Floria

Tosca, Lady Macbeth, et al — Tucci convinces us that her character

sincerely believes this to be true.

Karen Kilroy, as soprano Sophie De Palma, in mini-skirt and fuchsia

flounces, is the first student singer to the slaughter. (Portrayed

as such a ditz, one would be hard-pressed to believe this girl could

have made it through her Juilliard audition.) Yet Callas’s manner

of leading the terrified beginner into the heart of Amina’s lament

is heartfelt. "Everyone can walk in their sleep. There are few

who can weep in song," says Callas, as the music propels her into

the first of the evening’s painful reveries. "The theater, the

stage, are sacred spaces," she tells her students.

As the self-satisfied (and short) tenor Anthony Candolino, Elijah

Chester is fully equal to his role. After Callas dismisses him with,

"Go home Tony tight pants," the tenor holds his ground,

refusing

to leave the stage. His stubbornness finally provokes her enthusiasm.

"No — That’s the most interesting thing you’ve said,"

Callas observes, before finally allowing him to perform the

"Rocondita

Armonia" aria from Puccini’s "Tosca." This is, of course,

the work in which Callas made her debut in 1942 at age 18 — and

the role to which, as a mature artist, she brought dramatic fire never

before heard or seen in opera houses anywhere. The splendid rendition

by Chester was cheered both onstage and in the auditorium.

As the third of Callas’s student "victims," Rebecca

Eichenberger

brings a forceful voice and personality to the role of Sharon Graham,

a young woman Callas insults so cruelly that she flees the scene and

disappears. We are as surprised as the diva when she returns with

the announcement, "I’ve been throwing up in the bathroom, but

I’m ready to go on now." Callas, it seems, is beginning to value

the joy of the music in favor of her own disdain, and eventually asks

Sharon to sing the blood-curdling song twice through.

As Juilliard accompanist Emmanuel Weinstock, Gary Green is totally

right for the role, marvelously musical, a seasoned veteran at dodging

any diva’s imperious barbs. And as the overweight stagehand who is

pure New York issue, Jay Duckworth comes in for his share of diva

rage.

"They said they didn’t like my sound. That wasn’t it. They didn’t

like my soul," says Callas, confiding in us, her willing

listeners.

By this time we know McNally’s marvelous fantasy is in good hands.

Despite any reservations about the identifying features of the

"real"

Maria Callas, Maria Tucci ultimately brings us all to our knees.

— Nicole Plett

Master Class, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Performances continue to March

19. $26 to $38.


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