LuPone masters the life of Callas

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The Independent Online
Master Class

Queens Theatre, London.

This is the 20th anniversary of Maria Callas's death. The anniversary business demands that EMI is already releasing yet more compilation albums, one surprisingly based on last night's play in which the Callas character does not sing a single note.

is something of a rarity these days, a Tony- winning straight drama from Broadway. In recent times the traffic has tended to be the other way, and so Terrence McNally's play, inspired by the es Callas gave in New York five years before her death, arrived on a wave of anticipation.

Some of this anticipation surrounded the return to the British stage of Patti LuPone, the American actress who created the role of Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard four years ago, and who then fell out badly with the composer and turned to her lawyers.

Last night she returned in triumph. This was essentially a two-hour monologue, punctuated with delightful cameo foils of wannabe but distinctly unsuitable opera singers, damned with devastating faint praise by LuPone's Callas.

"In five or 10 years time," she tells one, "you'll be singing this role in some little theatre, somewhere...."

She tries in vain to impress on her students the need for feeling - "It's not a note we have here, it's a stab of pain" - and for imagination: "Otherwise, you have notes, nothing but notes".

The audience lapped up the putdowns of her still celebrated contemporaries: "Sutherland - I won't say anything against any of my rivals and neither should you. She did her best."

With this, and some occasionally wearisome interplay with the audience, one was for a while deceived that this might merely be a light comedy.

Callas's mixture of hauteur and her desperate vulnerability might be only half realised with Miss LuPone's hectoring wit. But not one bit of it. In two mesmerising dramatic monologues, as the arias are heard on the darkened stage behind her, she relives her poverty, ambition and heart- rending treatment by the brutishly insensitive Aristotle Onassis.

Her life, her voice, her emotion are all intrinsically linked, and given a compelling portrayal in a performance certain to become the signature role of Patti LuPone's career.

David Lister