Terrence McNally’s funny, reverential and wholly engrossing “Master Class” brings us all too briefly into the distinctive orbit of Maria Callas in the twilight of her career, when the soprano called La Divina critiqued young singers before invited audiences of opera students.
And as the play recreates a master class in singing, so Tyne Daly as the singer offers a master class in technique to inspire any acting student or colleague.
This extraordinary actress -- probably still best known to TV audiences as detective Mary Beth Lacey in the 1980s series “Cagney & Lacey” -- bears no resemblance either to Callas or to Zoe Caldwell, who originated the role in 1995.
And yet under Stephen Wadsworth’s finely detailed direction (note the exquisite calibration of her every move about the stage, as if it was a chess board and she the Queen) Daly captures Callas’s spirit and fire, her carriage, and learned hauteur. Most eerily, she nails Callas’s speaking voice.
Assisted by makeup and an elegantly formal black pantsuit, she brings the diva to fiery life as two young sopranos and a tenor subject themselves to her sometimes humiliating scrutiny.
First is Sophie De Palma (Alexandra Silber), so clueless on stage that Callas treats her like an idiot. Next is tenor Anthony Candolino (Garrett Sorenson), whose indifference to textual analysis fails to dull a native talent that leaves the teacher speechless.
Finally there is Sharon Graham, who arrives sheathed in evening wear and attitude. Played by Sierra Boggess with go-for-broke brazenness, Sharon pushes back, matching Callas blow for cruel blow.
McNally fills the interstices of the action with flashbacks to Callas’s life in Greece during WWII and her tempestuous affair with Aristotle Onassis.
“That’s who I am! This voice,” Callas exclaims after listening to an old recording of herself singing the “Letter” aria in Verdi’s “Macbeth.”
Well, that is who she was, as we learn from a playwright who knows whereof he speaks and from Daly’s triumphant portrayal of her.
At the Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com Rating: ****
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)