The entrance round of applause is one degree of excess; the entrance round of whooping and whistling is ridiculous. You would think it were Maria Callas herself walking on to the stage, not Tyne Daly playing her. But Terrence McNally was conscious of entrance-round culture when he wrote Master Class in 1995, because he gives Callas a motif of “no applause” instructions to the audience. We, in turn, play the audience at an open class such as she gave at the Juilliard School in 1970-71. A number of student “victims” sing arias; Callas critiques their performances, or more usually just them, and embarks on some spoken arias of recollection herself.
The other half of the old Cagney & Lacey television team, Sharon Gless, has just finished a West End run in A Round Heeled Woman, playing a warm and transgressive figure; Daly, in contrast takes a role that is cold and transcendent. She wears the marble Callas face well, despite being some 18 years older than Callas at the time of the action, and conveys the brisk assurance and mercilessness of the character while also hinting at the tiny germ of insecurity lurking deep within.
That this does not come further to light is due largely to the nature of the task that McNally set himself: to show both “La Divina” and a human being. This simply cannot be done with a true diva, and there has been none truer than Callas. McNally admits defeat on one front when, having more or less got away with having Callas sing not a single note (by dint of using recordings and, more dubiously, recitation of libretti), he gives her a couple of bars in the second act.
Stephen Wadsworth, the director of this transfer from Broadway, gives the soliloquies a contradictory (and over-the-top) staging, by bringing in a set that “dissolves” the action from the Juilliard to a La Scala of memory; flying in the most operatic architectural façade in the world is hardly logical when one wants to penetrate the most operatic personality façade. The evening begins with an even clumsier bit of tech: the accompanist takes his position with the house lights on, they are extinguished for Callas’s entrance (applause, whoops, whistles) … then they have to be surreptitiously brought up again solely so that she can order them back down.
Callas is certainly a compelling figure, and this study works rather better than that of her sometime lover Aristotle Onassis in these parts some 18 months ago, but in the event any diminution towards merely human stature is dramatically crippling.