Master Class

Hayes Theatre, August 12

Masterclass res
Maria Mercedes as Maria Callas. Photo: Clare Hawley.

Besides being a master class in how to act, sing, interpret and create, Terence McNally’s splendid vision of an aging Maria Callas offers a swift doctorate in sarcasm, scorn, resentment and venom. But then, as she says at the end, “If I have seemed harsh, it is because I have been harsh with myself.”

Indeed she was. Her perfectionism and obsession with truth made Callas opera’s greatest artist of the recording era. So these damned wannabe kids with pretty voices and shallow souls can take what she dishes out or look for new careers.

Maria Mercedes becomes Callas to an eerie degree. She constantly confronts us with a hauteur that spills over to imperiousness and a yo-yoing between humour, smugness and the welter of fears that fuelled Callas’s extraordinary artistry. Mercedes is dragon and La Divina, cruel and exultant, and she brilliantly makes the mood swings work, especially when hammering three shell-shocked students with the thunderbolt news that there’s more to this singing lark than hitting the right notes.

Georgia Wilkinson (Sophie), Blake Bowden (Tony) and Teresa Duddy (Sharon) beguile us with their singing voices as their characters suffer (and survive) the ordeal. Wilkinson should provide the tears Callas refers to, or the line is lame, but all three are painfully credible, as is Cameron Thomas as the accompanist.

Daniel Lammin’s production (for Left Bauer) becomes less assured during Callas’s challenging soliloquies that conclude each act. Fired by memories of roles in which she has triumphed, these run on to the men in her life, Meneghini and Onassis. Lammin and Mercedes have hit upon a frantic, shrewish pitch with minor respites, where more shades of grey are needed. The staging and Brendan Jellie’s lighting tend to cloud McNally’s intent here, too, rather than illuminating it.

Otherwise this is a compelling production of a play crammed with insights into the nature of art and artistry, and that, especially in Callas’s exchanges with Sharon, makes the chrysalis-like awakening of understanding a most affecting experience.

Until August 30.

Melbourne: fortyfivedownstairs, Sept 1-13