At the Arts Club Granville Island Stage until Oct. 27
Gina Chiarelli’s career should go into orbit following her sensational performance as Maria Callas in Terence McNally’s Master Class, directed by the multi-talented Meg Roe. Chic and svelte in an elegant chocolate-coloured jacket, trousers and white and brown scarf, Chiarelli gives the performance of a lifetime, her long fingers stabbing the air, hands moving constantly and expressively—now and again touching her luxurious chignon, striding the stage as commandingly as La Divina did and dominating the audience by sheer force of personality as did the great diva. All this Chiarelli does while scarcely singing a note.
By the time of the play (1971), Callas had lost that magnificent voice and was now making a living by teaching. The setting for Master Class, designed for this production by John Webber, is a recital hall at the Juilliard School in New York.
Master Class is a showcase for a female actor at the top of her game and Chiarelli shows us what the top looks like. The universal buzz after the play was, “Wasn’t Chiarelli spectacular?” And she is, right down to the nasal “anh?” after Callas, an American-born Greek soprano, makes a point.
The play, however, is problematic. It sets Callas up, right from the start, as a temperamental, difficult, self-absorbed star who can dish it but can’t take it. And for quite a while, that’s entertaining. She takes a run at the audience—ostensibly a group of aspiring opera singers who have paid to be critiqued by the now retired Callas—accusing us of having no style. “Get some,” she tells us.
She can’t remember the name of Manny, her recital pianist (Angus Kellett), and, again, it’s sort of funny and then it’s downright rude. She makes sotto voce complaints about the stagehand (Felix LeBlanc) when he doesn’t deliver her pillow and her footrest. She shrugs condescendingly when the lighting technician doesn’t dim the house lights the moment she demands it.
And it soon becomes apparent that the framework of Master Class will be a series of flashbacks at La Scala that Callas gets lost in. It does feel contrived when each of the young students she is persecuting (supposedly teaching), turns away, the lights change and Callas begins to relive one of her great triumphs.
But, like Callas herself, we get lost in the music. How can we resist when the wood paneled walls of the Juilliard recital hall are magically transformed through projections (Corwin Ferguson) and lighting (Webber) to the great Teatro alla Scala in Milan and we hear the recorded voice of La Divina—an accolade used even by her many detractors—soaring through the theatre?
The arc of the play, such as it is, takes us to a somewhat nicer Callas, transformed by the power of the music. Her rudeness and condescension are tempered by the passion inspired by the great composers of the past and the great tragic love stories, which she clearly feels parallels her own turbulent affair with Aristotle Onassis who threw her over for Jacqueline Kennedy. Playwright McNally is also obviously commenting on how the human desire for love can derail even great artists.
While Callas cruelly mistreats very young Sophie (Shannon Chan-Kent), she is less nasty with Sharon (Melanie Krueger) and downright complimentary to Tony (Frédérik Robert). Once each of them is allowed to sing—constantly interrupted by Callas’s criticism—they provide some of the evening’s highlights, especially Robert who, as Tony in the play, reduces Callas to tears.
Maybe this is opera for those of us who don’t like opera and perhaps some of us will risk Tosca or Macbeth now. But more than the play itself, it’s a vehicle for an actor and there’s great pleasure in watching Chiarelli climb into Callas’s skin for a while. She wears it well.