“Master Class,” Terrence McNally’s 1995 homage to turbulent opera diva Maria Callas, retains its bite in Wendy C. Goldberg’s vivid new staging at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Credit is largely due to the grand display of fire and ice unleashed by Barbara Walsh, who stepped into the role of the Greek-American soprano on short notice after Kate Mulgrew withdrew.
The play’s action takes place on a rehearsal stage where the audience witnesses three stormy sessions with a trio of hapless but richly talented aspiring voice students. Callas, who stopped singing in 1965, taught her first class at Julliard in 1971 and conducted it with an iron hand. With glimpses of insight into her tortured personal life, she coaxes, prods and humiliates her students, who come under attack for posture, apparel, vocal projection and character evaluation.
Stately and handsome, Walsh (recently of the Broadway “Company” revival) is in full command as Callas, coming down to the stage apron for an incisive soliloquy at the close of each act. These are biographically vivid little setpieces wherein Callas reveals her soul, expounding on her passionate relationship with Aristotle Onassis, her quest for love, her dedication to her music and art, pride in her beauty and the 37 curtain calls she once received.
Walsh blends an acerbic, humorous edge with deep-seated passion and reckless abandon. With the real voice of Callas in the distance, she recites a spoken aria in reflective counterpoint, and the moment is enthralling.
A pert and pretty Sarah Uriarte Berry, who comes to class in a scarlet ball gown, sings a Verdi aria with stunning clarity. Offering a feisty, self-assured student, Uriarte Berry reveals the true glory of opera and its rewards. Lauren Worsham is more demure as meek, intimidated Sophie, who can barely get a single note out before Callas unleashes her wrath.
Mike McGowan plays complacent tenor Tony, who follows Callas’ rude dismissal with a fervent performance of “Recondita Armonia” from “Tosca.” Not only playing brilliantly, Andrew Gerle’s accompanist also reveals an impish sense of humor.
Goldberg has staged the play with a satisfying suggestion of eavesdropping intimacy. Designer Alexander Dodge’s spare concert stage is dominated by a Steinway grand that fades for a brief flashback into the towering image of La Scala’s lofty box seats.