Theatre Review: “Master Class”

Tyne Daly is a miraculous triumph in Master Class, Terrence McNally’s brilliant depiction of Maria Callas, the larger than life opera diva the world knew as La Divinia. After an acclaimed run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. last year, Manhattan Theatre Club has brought the entertaining revival of the playwright’s 1995 Tony Award-winning play back to Broadway, where Master Class opened on July 7, 2011 for a limited engagement through August 14. Daly, directed by Stephen Wadsworth, who put her through her paces as Clytemnestra in Agamemnon three years ago in Los Angeles, obliterates her blue-collar image—the stock and trade that has won her six Emmy Awards—by delivering a thrilling performance that becomes the imperious essence of the character at the center of Master Class.

Daly, although not exactly the image of the elegant jet-setting Callas, nonetheless astoundingly transforms herself into the aristocratic embodiment of the New York girl who became the darling of the opera world with her debut at La Scala in 1951. When Daly regally strides on stage, impeccably made up with a fantastic jet-black wig, wearing a chic black pantsuit and a Hermes scarf, she takes your breath away. As the evening builds, Daly, a consummate actress, continues to electrify with her power, presence and startling sense of truth. You really believe she was once the overweight greasy girl that Callas was in her youth determined to gain revenge. With precision timing she hilariously mangles the student’s names and continually interrupts them with instructions on how to listen. [expand]

The play is set in a classroom at Julliard in the mid-1970s, where Callas actually taught a master class a few years before her death in 1977 at 53. McNally’s depiction pays homage to the opera legend and was apparently inspired by the transcripts from these sessions, taking some of the dialogue about art directly from them. But by allowing the legendary soprano to drift off into her burning memories while critiquing the three students, McNally shows us details of Callas’ battles with poverty, weight, her rivals and her tragic love affair with the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, who discarded her for Jackie Kennedy.

If there is any shortcoming in the production by Wadsworth, a director with an extensive opera background, it is a lack of specificity and nuance from the other actors. As a result, the evening shows off the shortcomings of the schematic play and the talented actors portraying the students come off as little more than foils for the dominating Callas instead of fully fleshed-out characters. The gifted performers in these roles are Sierra Boggess, Garrett Sorenson and Alexandra Silber, and while their work serves the evening the nuance needed to allow their interactions with Callas to sizzle is often missing.

In reality, however, McNally’s take on Callas is a fabrication that borrows heavily, not only on Callas, but incorporates aspects of other famous sopranos. Because of this, many actresses—including Patti Lupone, Dixie Carter and Faye Dunaway—have played the role successfully by capturing the qualities inherent in the text. Zoe Caldwell, who originated the role, gave the definitive interpretation, because mixed with her flamboyant fierce pride wrapped in layers of affected sophistication was also a fragility that was startling. To be fair, Daly’s portrait, although extremely vulnerable, is a tough survivor, and she makes the role uniquely her own. Her ego rises above her generosity of spirit, making her Callas an unforgettable monster.

Master Class is now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Ave. For tickets or more information call 212-239-6200 or visit [/expand]

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