There may not be enough superlatives in my vocabulary to properly explain why Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s season-opening production of Master Class can't be missed.
The magic begins at the very beginning, when Angela Iannone, who reincarnates opera legend Maria Callas, takes the stage to a burst of applause, then quickly silences the audience with a decisive wag of her finger. Like Callas, Iannone is the star and she calls the shots.
Iannone takes the word "powerhouse" to a new level. She commands every eye, stepping into the diva's old operatic roles and delivering them in recitative with as much emotion and passion as if she was once again able to sing them at a moment’s notice. She evokes raw tragedy or comedy with a mere aside or a profound silence.
But this is not just the Angela Iannone Show — although such a play would have been nearly as impressive. She's flanked with cast members who deliver exemplary performances of their own. They and directors Jill Anna Ponasik and James Zager earn their own superlatives.
Still, Master Class, written by Terrence McNally, centers on Callas, considered one of the greatest opera sopranos of all time and also one of opera's most controversial divas. The play examines her in her twilight years — past her triumphant debuts, the dynamic weight loss that many suspect crippled her voice and her tempestuous love affair with Aristotle Onassis, the shipping magnate who would later leave her for Jacqueline Kennedy.
Yet, she remains the spirited woman she has always been: “La Divina,” a blessing and curse.
The play's history with Milwaukee Chamber Theatre dates back to 1999, when Iannone first took on the role. The production was as successful as Callas herself, and Callas would become a signature role for Iannone, who has since played it elsewhere in the Midwest.
If her performance then was anything like it is now, it’s easy to understand its popularity. Iannone volleys with dizzying speed between Callas’ many moods, finding her greatest moments in snippets of dry humor and flashes of temper that are thrilling to behold. Iannone’s Callas is often unamused by her students, and there’s a delicious chill in the moment she takes to survey them before explaining exactly why they are more foolish than she.
McNally gives Callas two long, act-ending monologues, and Iannone makes the most of them. She’s breathtaking in those extended moments, those stream-of-consciousness reminiscences over the sound of her most brilliant roles (the real Callas, via recording). The structure of the play makes Master Class half a one-woman show, giving Iannone a chance to flaunt her skills before an audience who will soon be as devoted to her as Callas’ admirers were to the great diva.
Callas may say she has no rivals — “How can you have rivals when no one else can do what you do?” — but she has orbiters, and Ponasik and Zager have succeeded in making them inconsequential only in Callas' mind. Brian Myers (also the production’s music director) and James Fletcher provide necessary physical comedy as the accompanist and stagehand, respectively.
The three students (Melissa Cardamone, Edson Melendez and Alicia Berneche) are alternately eviscerated and praised. Cardamone’s soprano, in the first act, is an opportunity to reveal Callas’ brutality. It takes 20 minutes for Callas to let her past the first note of her aria. While the young soprano does improve, Cardamone makes it clear she’s merely aping Callas. Melendez’ tenor does better. After Callas criticizes his cavalier demeanor, he produces an aria beautiful enough to bring her to tears, and it’s a joy watching him learn and develop mid-performance.
Berneche plays Callas’ most gifted student, Sharon, which is appropriate, since she’s the actor who comes closest to Iannone’s talent. The scene’s staging brilliantly sets her up to supplant Callas, placing her at center stage as she sings and shunting Callas to the side. It’s the first time our eyes are drawn to someone other than Callas — a fact that manifests itself in a visceral rage crawling over Iannone's face.
Master Class isn’t a glamorous portrait. McNally’s words and Iannone’s performance ensure that. But it’s a deeply cutting depiction of what great artists must sacrifice to produce great work. The play pierces the heart like the high F that Callas so desperately wishes she could still reach.
Master Class runs at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre through Aug. 24. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. most weeknights, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets range from $15 to $40 and can be purchased at 414-291-7800 or milwaukeechambertheatre.com.