‘Master Class’ at the Vaudeville Theatre

Tyne Daly plays Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s ‘Master Class’, as a huge character, an ego, more important than any of the other people on the stage, or indeed in the audience, but also as a hollow shell of something that is no longer really there any more.  It is an incredible performance, and there is nowhere else to watch, even when the young singers who are the students in the Master Class are belting out an aria.

The play is set during an apocryphal Master Class, taught by Callas towards the end of her life, after her voice has gone, and her message to the young performers under tuition is that the life of an artist is one of pain, struggle, and only those with total dedication and unshakeable self belief will succeed.  Callas insults both the students and the audience, as having neither the style nor the passion to warrant her proper attention.

There are moments of high humour, and Tyne Daly has excellent timing, a fabulously expressive face accentuated by lavishly blacklined eye make-up, and a great voice for the cutting put down.

It is the strength of her performance that saves the play, which is a bit contrived.  Swept into the memories that are evoked by the arias, the stage darkens and backed by the sound of Callas’s own recording of the songs, small episodes from Callas’s life are played out: her feelings of triumph over the pretty thin girls who were her youthful rivals, her disappointments in her relationship with Onassis, Tyne Daly has to play all the parts, and it is only  her complete commitment to it all that makes it work.

Two of the young singers have fantastic voices, and from the vantage point of a seat near the front of the stalls, the sound they produce is astonishing; I don’t think I’ve been so close to an opera singer going full tilt before.  It was an unexpected bonus for the evening.

So, laughter, tears and a challenge to consider the price paid in life for great artistic success.  A good night out.

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