Friday, October 5, 2012

Review: (Vancouver) Master Class

Gina Chiarelli (photo: David Cooper)
La Divina
by Chris Lane

Maria Callas instructs her students not to act, but to become a character, and to truly feel their emotions. Gina Chiarelli, who portrays the celebrated diva in Master Class, does exactly this in a powerful and compelling performance.

Master Class, which is being put on by the Arts Club at their Granville Island Stage, is a theatrical take on a master class that Callas gave at Juilliard in the '60s. The audience at Granville Island becomes the audience of the class as she brings out the best in her young students, but not without a few tears along the way. The play is not so much about her lessons on opera; rather, it is about her, and about what she has to say about art and performance. She tells her students to go deeper than just reading and singing, in order to find the meaning in the text and to express those emotions for the audience.

Chiarelli's performance truly is the centrepiece of this production.

Callas, famous not just for her singing but also for her fiery temperament, is an engaging character on the stage. She belittles not just her students but the entire audience as well, drawing out plenty of laughs  along the way. Callas was such a fascinating and incredibly talented diva that only an actress of the highest calibre could do justice to her character. Fortunately, Chiarelli is that actress. She captures Callas's personality wonderfully, and is just as strict, arrogant, charismatic and fascinating as one could expect Callas to have been.

Chiarelli's performance truly is the centrepiece of this production. The monologues where Callas relives her tumultuous past relationships and struggles are moving because of the ferocity and presence that Chiarelli brings to the stage. She also dominates the students and Manny, the ever-present répétiteur on the piano who Angus Kellett plays as just the right kind of doormat.

While Chiarelli does not try to emulate Callas by singing on stage, her students do sing, so there are some excellent operatic performances by Frédérik Robert, Melanie Krueger and Shannon Chan-Kent. Their characters seem a bit too weak when they are reduced to tears by Callas's harsh critiques, but Master Class is not really about them anyway. It is about Callas, and about what the performing arts should be, and how to do them properly. Callas tells us how it is done, and Chiarelli shows us.

Master Class, written by Terrence McNally and directed by Meg Roe, is playing on Granville Island until October 27th.

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