Concentrate on Zoe Caldwell, in a demure black Chanel suit that draws every bit of light in the theater to its owner, and easily enter a world of mythic temperaments, quicksilver emotional turnabouts and imperious pronouncements about art, love and learning.

Concentrate on Zoe Caldwell, in a demure black Chanel suit that draws every bit of light in the theater to its owner, and easily enter a world of mythic temperaments, quicksilver emotional turnabouts and imperious pronouncements about art, love and learning. This is the world of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” a real-time encounter with prima donna assoluta Maria Callas that finds one of our greatest stage actresses in a performance of controlled yet volcanic power. The setting is a small formal auditorium not unlike the Carnegie Recital Hall. Pristine white plaster columns and moldings and a blond wood floor set off a baby grand piano and a discreet little rostrum. A pair of doors at the rear fly open for Callas’ calculatedly dramatic entrance — could it be otherwise? — where she is to critique a select group of student singers before an invited audience (which is, of course, us).

Before the class gets under way, there’s some banter that immediately signals the beginning of the roller-coaster ride we have embarked upon. “We’re going to roll up our sleeves and work,” Callas announces. “You must be willing to subjugate yourself — is that a word? — subjugate yourself to the music.”

First, however, you must be willing to subjugate yourself to La Divina: “Don’t take this personally, but you don’t have a look,” she says to someone in the theater. “Get one. As quickly as possible.” (Clearly, we have diverged somewhat from the master classes Callas held at Juilliard in 1971 and ’72 from which McNally has taken his inspiration.)

“Bring on the first victim!” she says, and victim is exactly what poor Sophie (Karen Kay Cody) proves to be. A giggly vision in golden curls and flouncy pink chiffon, Sophie expels exactly one note of the aria she has chosen from “La Sonnambula” before Callas is all over her, demanding better enunciation.

Then Callas sing-speaks her way movingly through the aria, about a woman convinced she will never again see her beloved. Callas drifts off in a reverie that takes her back to her final triumph at La Scala — a transformation exquisitely realized by set designer Michael McGarty by the simplest of means — and her rough-and-tumble liaison with the proudly crude shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

“They said they didn’t like my sound,” she says after being fired, isolated now onstage in a mythic golden aura. “That wasn’t it. They didn’t like my soul.”

Soul is what Callas the teacher is looking for as she cajoles, insults, prods and urges these untested young artists to dig deeper than they have ever dug before — deeper than most are capable of digging. Two other students, Tony (Jay Hunter Morris), a tenor, and Sharon (Audra McDonald), another soprano, actually do get to sing their arias.

It is in McDonald’s appearance, working through the letter scene from “Macbeth,” that “Master Class” builds to its most dramatic moments. Nervous to the point of illness, Sharon watches, transfixed — we all do — as Callas teaches her how to make an entrance.

Realizing that this is a student with rare spirit, Callas then rides Sharon through the aria, a jockey on a thoroughbred, offering a few moments of exhilaration — before cutting her ruthlessly to the quick.

Well, art, as Stephen Sondheim said, isn’t easy. Faced with Sharon’s teary outrage, Callas can only wonder whether the whole business of teaching isn’t a mistake, before declaring, quite earnestly, “I’m certain what we do matters.” As a coda to an evening spent with a hypnotic personality as played by a no less hypnotic actress, that’s fine. But as the summation of a play, it’s a bit of a letdown. We have not come very far, regardless of the pleasure we have had in getting there.

The central figure in McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” was a dancer-choreographer coming to grips with a failing body and a creative block. “Master Class” again finds the playwright struggling to create something artful about the making of art — a goal that seems more of a critic’s dilemma than an artist’s.

In “Master Class,” what you see is literally what you get. A few pronouncements about the importance of art and artists never lift this facsimile of a real event into the realm of art itself.

Theatergoers not versed in the arcana of opera may find “Master Class” slow going, and those expecting revelation on the order of “Sunday in the Park With George” will almost surely leave unsatisfied.

But “Master Class” doesn’t need to appeal to a mass audience. This magnificent production is in exactly the right place — a welcoming, intimate Broadway house — under exactly the right circumstances — with the relatively low running costs and ticket price provided under the Broadway Alliance aegis.

It offers a performance of leonine grandeur from Caldwell, full of dazzling highs and lows, purrs and hisses, bravura pronouncements and quiet wound-licking as she reviews a life of accomplishment and pain. In the end, Callas’ bywords are domination, collaboration and, unembarrassedly, assets!

The star is perfectly matched by Cody, Morris and, especially, McDonald (a Tony winner for her Carrie in “Carousel”). Those factors should all work to make “Master Class” the Broadway Alliance’s first true hit. It is certainly an unqualified triumph for Zoe Caldwell.

Master Class

John Golden Theater, New York; 793 seats; $45 top

Production

A Robert Whitehead & Lewis Allen and Spring Sirkin presentation of a play in two acts by Terrence McNally; director, Leonard Foglia.

Creative

Set, Michael McGarty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Jon Gottlieb; musical supervisor, David Loud. production stage manager, Dianne Trulock; press, Bill Evans; general management, Stuart Thompson. Opened Nov. 5, 1995; reviewed Nov. 2. Running time: 2 hours, 35 min.

Cast

Cast: David Loud (Manny), Zoe Caldwell (Maria Callas), Karen Kay Cody (Sophie), Michael Friel (Stagehand), Audra McDonald (Sharon), Jay Hunter Morris (Tony).
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