Operatic divas, as the word implies, are not a dime a dozen. We generally don’t ascribe to such divinity in the theater except when a critic may be personally inclined to bestow that accolade on an actor for a particular role. That leverage then allows me to say that Tyne Daly IS La Divina in “Master Class,” now having its first Broadway revival under the direction of Stephen Wadsworth since it opened in 1995.
Terrence McNally’s histrionic ode to opera diva Maria Callas has remained a formidable vehicle for many a dramatic diva in regional theaters across the country. The author, the winner of four Tony awards, including Best Play, was evidently intoxicated by the Callas legend and has no doubt been thrilled to see such stars as Zoe Caldwell, Dixie Carter, Patti LuPone, and Barbara Walsh (in 2009 at the Paper Mill Playhouse), among others, play Callas. The double dose of temperament and terrorizing ego afforded Callas by Daly will undoubtedly stir up plenty of talk among theatergoers in the coming weeks.
The more fiercely empowered Daly as the “monstre sacre” (Callas’ self-ascribed label) can add Callas to her impressively diverse catalog of imposing roles. Daly is the winner of the triple crown (Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle) for her performance as Mama Rose in the 1989 revival of “Gypsy,” as well as many accolades since ranging from theater roles (“Rabbit Hole”) to her multiple Emmy Awards for her performances in the popular TV series “Cagney & Lacey” and “Judging Amy.” She is an actor who remarkably does not conform to a predictable image or subscribe to a dishonest pretension. She is the essence of what it means to be “real” in her art.
The Callas-invoked idiosyncrasies and temperament are all there in Daly’s appropriately egocentric performance, but they blaze with a theatricality that is Daly’s invention, a uniquely characterized presence that not only invokes Callas’ celebrity but also expands beyond the singer’s real and imagined world. As the title indicates, and the facts report, Callas conducted master classes at the Juilliard School in the early 1970s. These, after her tortured voice had disintegrated and after she was dumped by her insensitive lover, Aristotle Onassis.
McNally allows his Callas to bare her soul, share her pain, and most of all express her bitterness, mostly as it regards the crude and cruel Onassis and her early cast-off husband G.B. Meneghini. This all happens in the somewhat delirious context of soliloquies, reveries, and recitals, executed fluidly and gracefully under Wadsworth’s direction. It is worth noting that Wadsworth has, in addition to his many theater credits, directed a number of operas at the Metropolitan Opera.
The set has been handsomely designed by Thomas Lynch to invoke the wood-paneled interior of Alice Tully Hall. This is where Callas is consigned to excoriate, if not completely decimate the three voice students brave enough to enter, as well as the indifferent and oblivious stagehand (Clinton Brandhagen). Manny, the timid, but accomplished piano accompanist, is played quite affably by Jeremy Cohen.
Daly makes the obligatory grand entrance in a snappy black ensemble accented with a colorful scarf, a distinctive look created by costume designer Martin Pakledinaz. I also liked that Daly was given a warm brown wig to wear instead of a harsh black one. This is a good and complimentary choice. Callas then greets her first “victim,” Sophie De Palma (Alexandra Silber making her Broadway debut), a petrified and tremulous young woman whom Callas quickly dissolves into a state of sheer terror. “Get a look” says Callas to this pathetic creature who has dared to wear a rather inappropriate outfit that Callas ridicules for showing more than the audience needs to see.
Punctuated with put-downs and snide remarks about her operatic rivals, as well as dishy opera-newsy asides to us, the fictional class observers, Callas proceeds to humiliate Sophie as she tries to get through the first bars of a testy Bellini aria, a fragment that triggers Callas’ memory. Except for the light on the singer’s face, the focus is on Callas as the side of the opera house’s proscenium appears and we are taken back to Callas’ triumph in “La Sonnambula.”
There is an amusing confrontation with Tony, a hefty cheery-faced tenor, played with unintimidated moxie by Garrett Sorenson, who sparks Callas’ romantic side, and more memories, as he sings “Recondita Armonia” from Puccini’s “Tosca,” one of Callas’ signature operas. Finally, there is the devastating effect upon Callas after she is told off by a not-so-easily-intimidated soprano Sharon Graham, well-acted and impressively sung by Sierra Boggess. Silber, who is making her Broadway debut, gets a deserved round of applause for her singing of the brutal letter scene from Verdi’s “Macbeth.” (This is the role that catapulted Audra McDonald to fame.)
You don’t have to be a worshiper of the illustrious singer to empathize with the prescribed notes of poignancy or purpose of “Master Class.” Callas, whose incomparable, steel-belted voice steered a new course in modern operatic singing, was inarguably a larger-than-life personality. How commendable that Daly doesn’t shy away from singing a few brief well chosen notes, something that most interpreters don’t even begin to consider doing.
It is interesting to consider that while McNally was expressly inspired by real events in the life of Callas, only some of what is dramatically recalled in her fleeting digressions resonates with any accuracy. But who wants truth when what is at stake is to exalt the persona of one of the most tormented, tempestuous and temperamental artists of the 20th century. And we thank Tyne Daly for giving that exaltation a brand new life. ***
“Master Class,” through Sunday, August 14, the Roundabout Theater Company at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th Street. $57 to $116. 212-239-6200.