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Master Class - Ensemble Theatre (NSW)

Written by Terrence McNally. Directed by Liesel Badorrek


A diva-esque snapshot into Maria Callas' teaching years, expertly performed by Lucia Mastrantone


Reviewed by Claira Prider

Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli

Until July 20, 2024



Maria Callas’ personal life was as dramatic as her on stage performances; filled with scandal, betrayal and rivalry, her life story reads somewhat like an opera itself. During her 30s which is usually a sopranos vocal peak, vocal problems became evident, and she took her final operatic bow at the age of 41. After being abandoned by her lover (who was married to Jackie Kennedy at the time), in an attempt to revive her musical career, she gave more than 20 masterclasses at Juilliard School of Music – and this is where the play begins.


Inspired by a masterclass with Leontyne Price that he attended, Terrence McNally’s Tony Award winning play Master Class takes place in a theatre at the Juilliard School in 1971. As we enter, Ensemble Theatre’s intimate stage is set with the most petite baby grand piano, a free-standing vintage stage light, chair and small stage, backed by an acoustic panelled wall. With the house lights still up, the work begins with musical director and pianist Maria Alfonsine taking her seat at the piano. The stagehand enters to set up the music stands in preparation for Callas’ arrival before she charges through the double doors and carries us into her operatic world.


Photos by Prudence Upton


The fourth wall is non-existent; sitting in the theatre, we the audience are the audience of her masterclass at Juilliard. The play unfolds with three students stepping forward to sing for her, all at the mercy of her high expectations, intolerance of unpreparedness and dislike of their clothes. McNally’s writing of the character presents Callas as somewhat caricature like, showing her simply as a self-obsessed, impatient diva, in what sometimes feels like a series of comedy sketches. That said, much of the comedy comes from Lucia Mastrantone’s improvised interactions, engaging with and responding to happenings in the audience.


Mastrantone’s performance is a masterclass in itself; her portrayal of the singer demonstrates the same fastidiousness and commitment to the artform and instrument that Callas had. There are moments while the piano is playing, where you can see her hearing the different orchestral parts of the score in her head, and the rich imagery apparent when recalling her greatest roles is spectacular. Switching between English (with a Greek accent) and Italian, her delivery feels effortless, filled with nuanced Callas-esque expressions. Mastrantone's artistry and attention to detail in character study is truly immaculate.

 

The singers, played by Elisa Colla, Bridget Patterson and Matthew Reardon are each charming, doing well to execute errors and take on Callas’ multiple concurrent technical directions, whilst embodying student performer characters. Operatic stagecraft doesn’t aways translate in an intimate theatre setting and the casting has done well to find singers who can fulfil the demands of the roles.


Alfonsine’s compositions feature throughout the work with cellist and stage-hand Damian De Boos-Smith, providing a gentle soundtrack that connects scenes beyond the operatic arias. As both an on-stage character and the accompanist, Alfonsine provides a grounded presence amongst the volatility of the other characters as well as stylistic and setting appropriate accompaniment.


Mastrantone's artistry and attention to detail in character study is truly immaculate.

By using minimal staging elements, Liesel Badorrek’s direction allows the audience to focus completely on the performers and the text. There are two dramatic flashback monologues which begin with authentic recordings of Callas singing and evolve into desperate, trauma-stricken recollections. These scenes allow for Kelsey Lee’s lighting design to shine as it highlights and reinforces the chaos inside Callas’ head. De Boos-Smith’s sound design amplifies the sense of despair in the flashbacks with loud whispers of gossip drowning out the sound of singing, as her demons and insecurities consume her.

  

There are some non-realistic holes in the musical text that leave me thinking perhaps McNally’s focus was more on the gossip columns than musical accuracy within the text. Regardless, Ensemble Theatre's production of Master Class is an engaging, entertaining and expertly performed snapshot into the life of Maria Callas, La Divina.



 

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