BWW REVIEW: Amanda Muggleton Channels One Of Opera's Greatest Divas As She Reprises Her Portrayal Of Maria Callas In Terrence McNally's MASTERCLASS.
Thursday 22 March 2018, 7:30pm, The Studio, Sydney Opera House
Sydney audiences were treated to a new immersive expression of Terrence McNally's award winning MASTERCLASS with Amanda Muggleton returning to the role that won her a Helpmann Award in 2002. Maria Callas famous masterclasses are recreated as the audience is taken back to be part of the assembled students that witnessed the 23 two-hour sessions run at Juilliard School in 1971 and 1972, sharing La Divina's wisdom and also providing an insight into her successes and sacrifices.
Whilst most stagings of MASTERCLASS has the audience as merely passive observers, Adam Spreadbury-Maher (director) has created an immersive experience where the audience is treated as the students of Juilliard would have been during sessions with three of the 25 students that featured during Callas' Masterclasses. With a blend of scripted performance and impromptu interaction with the audience, it pays to be on time, be prepared and be presentable as you never know when Muggleton, as Callas, will single you out for being late, looking ordinary or not paying attention. (It is noted that for Opening Night, the two ladies singled out for not having a 'look' were two incredibly fabulous women, each with a distinctive look and the moment of inattention was met with a hilariously obscure response that Muggleton handled with delightful bewilderment and incredulity).
The stage of the black box space of Sydney Opera House' s Studio is simply dressed with carpet tiles, a grand piano and Callas' work table, complete with tabletop music stand propped up on a pile of books and a stack of manuscripts and space for Callas Chanel handbag. A tall stool allows the Diva a place to perch, once it has been furnished with a makeshift footstool and cushion by a harangued stagehand, Touring production manager Ben Howlett. Interestingly, after the show, Muggleton shared with the opening night audience that accompanies Dobbs Franks, who takes on the role of Manny Weinstock, noted the accuracy of the space in recreating the theatre at Juilliard where Callas ran her Masterclasses, making the immersive experience even more authentic for the Sydney audiences.
Muggleton assumes Callas' elegance, grace and gravitas in a black pant suit, bright silk scarf and opulent fur coat, accessorised by a dazzling but tasteful display of diamonds, all coordinated by costume designer Adrienne Chisolm. Whilst most imagery of Callas show the Greek beauty with hair severely pulled back, her look has been softened with Muggleton donning a black wig, pinned into a high bouffant and trailing down her back. Red lips and long red lacquered nails provide the pop of colour against the monochrome look once the scarf is discarded along with the fur to an unsuspecting 'student' in the front row. This clean, sophisticated look which Callas cultivated to set herself apart is contrasted by the three students, accompanist Manny and the stagehand. Chisolm has ensured each student is individual with Sophie De Palma (Kala Gare), the timid 'fangirl' in a beige suit and too short skirt; gutsy second soprano Sharon Graham (Jessica Boyd), who initially believes that 'looking the part' of a concert singer is more important than the performance, first appearing in an over the top confection of crystal and satin, and the cocky casual lad Anthony "call me Tony" Candolino (Tomas Dalton), in 'too tight pants' and sports jacket. The older Manny is presented with a degree of comfort as he knows he doesn't need to impress the Diva, he just needs to play for the singers.
Muggleton's performance is captivating. She moves easily between Callas' cutting barbs of uncensored criticism and commentary on careers and 'competitors', not that she seemed to view other performers as anywhere near being worth of being considered as her 'rivals', and moments of reflection and melancholy as she remembers the sacrifices that she made for her career and the man she loved who treated her abominably, Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. As Callas voice had deteriorated in her later life, Muggleton isn't called on to recreate her vocals but the spoken word expression of the songs and the English translations is presented with incredible depth of emotion and understanding with a beautiful pace and the few sung lines are delivered with a wonderful Sprechstimme. Muggleton ensures that the audience is in awe of Callas as she incites fear and also respect for the dedication and determination and depth of understanding of what makes a great performance. The moments when Callas drifts away from the reality of the classes and into her memories are heartbreaking when the impact of a mother that pushed her and shamed her, an older husband she could never truly love and a callous and crass lover who treated her as a step on his ascent into society are all recalled. Archive images echo the events that the Diva is distracted by and the projection of Aristotle Onassis and Jacqueline Kennedy are incredibly moving as Amina's aria from La Sonnambula plays out, echoing the reality that Onassis manipulated her and used her, never truly returning her love but instead marrying the worlds most famous widow.
The three soloists are wonderful young up and coming performers who deliver wonderful performances. Soprano Kala Gare is incredibly convincing as a wide eyed second year student to the point she had the audience members seated next to her in the auditorium convinced she was an exchange student for a while. Her accent and enthusiasm is perfect and with the trend for retro stylings in young people today, it was easy to accept she was an enthusiastic young fan. Gare delivers the deer in the headlights look brilliantly and is a perfect sacrificial lamb as Callas' first 'victim'. Tenor Tomas Dalton delivers a self-assured but somewhat laidback 'Tony' with the confidence synonymous with a good looking tenor but it is Jessica Boyd as the initially over dressed and apparently timid Sharon Graham who really shines. Boyd allows the audience to see the young woman pull herself together from tears to terror as she accepts Callas' coaching with ease to deliver a formidable Lady Macbeth which in turn gives her the courage to return Callas' fire when the Diva dares to try to diminish her assessment of the young singer. Also, definitely wait to see if there is an encore after the show as the opening night audience was treated to three fabulous solos from the young artists with Boyd again being the stand out with a breathtaking expression of Mozart's Queen of the Night Aria from the Magic Flute, filled with power and rage and expressing the depth of emotion and understanding which Callas had been trying to teach her students.
Whether you are an opera fan, a performer, enjoy history or simply want an incredible theatrical experience, MASTERCLASS is a must see. For any performer, Muggleton and Callas impart widom, but the knowledge is also useful for anyone as Callas urges a truth in emotion, an understanding and a dedication to what you want to do, making it a passion not just a job.