Stephanie Beacham commands the stage as flawed diva Maria Callas in the Theatre Royal Bath Productions’ revival of Master Class. Terrence McNally’s award-winning script, inspired by the master classes a fading Callas gave in New York’s Juilliard School of Music in the 1970s, portrays the turbulent and passionate diva as self-absorbed and acerbic.
‘La Divina’ tells her tale of triumph and tragedy in intense monologues which Beacham (Dynasty, The Colbys, Celebrity Big Brother) manages to pace perfectly.
It’s all there: from passion and sacrifice for the boorish tycoon Aristotle Onassis, through the striving to be La Scala’s ultimate to the all-consuming absorption with her art. And no place to hide with only a handful of minor characters and a minimal set – a piano, chair, footstool and two small tables.
Directed by Chichester Festival Theatre’s artistic director Jonathan Church, this Master Class is informative, absorbing and even, at times, amusing.
With David Harvey playing beautifully as pianist Manny, Callas challenges three young hopefuls – and the audience – to get a ‘look’, presence and to understand the whole process of being an artiste. As the succession of youngsters come and go, so their efforts trigger further reminiscences of a tempestuous life played mainly in the public eye.
There’s poor Sophie (Robyn North), who barely gets beyond the first note of her chosen aria; Sharon (soprano Pamela Hay); who is cajoled and bullied into becoming Lady Macbeth – and indeed finds the stomach to stab where it hurts; and Tony (tremendous tenor Christopher Jacobsen) who, whether because he's male or whether Callas really can’t find anything to criticise, gets off lightly.
Being just too young to have remembered the Callas rollercoaster ride, I knew little about the star other than her operatic fame so this was an enjoyably educational evening. But I do have to question just how wide the appeal of this play will be now.