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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Master Class’

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“Forget all about me,” Maria Callas tells us. “Ignore me. I’m invisible.”

You could no sooner ignore this performance than keep your eyes off the most gorgeous sunset you’ve ever seen.

Jacqueline Antaramian returns to her Fresno roots with a superb portrayal of Callas, the iconic opera singer, in the beautifully crafted StageWorks Fresno/Fresno Grand Opera production of “Master Class” at the Shaghoian Hall. I’m not usually the type of critic who actively exhorts people to get up off their seats and into a car headed to the theater, but this is a time for forceful imperatives: If you don’t act quickly, you’ll miss this remarkable performance. It plays just two more times: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

It’s no surprise Antaramian brings such craft and expertise to the role. After a long and distinguished career in professional regional theater — she started it all off with an acclaimed run in the Fresno State theater department — she made her way to New York. Among other roles on Broadway, she understudied Tyne Daly in the role of Callas in “Master Class.”

The Shaghoian Hall is a perfect place to stage this play by Terrence McNally, which is set in a concert hall arranged for one of Callas’ famed master classes for advanced students that she taught at the end of her career — long after her rapturous voice was shot. The set-up is simple: a piano on one side of the stage, a table and stool on the other. (The Shaghoian’s architectural beauty does the rest.)

It’s as if we in the audience are students watching the great master at work.

From the moment Antaramian briskly strides onto stage, she embodies Callas with a crackle of electric understanding that captures her character’s moody charisma. (Entrances are always important, she admonishes the audience.) Veering from pensive to autocratic, from flippant (“How can you have rivals when no one else can do what you can do?” she smirks) to the nearly theological (“I do believe we are in a holy place,” she says, referring to the theater), it’s as if she’s humming along on a current that’s somehow more supercharged than the rest of us.

The structure of the play is relatively simple: Callas welcomes three students to the stage. The tentative Sophie DePalma (adeptly played by Taylor Abels as bland and mousy), is overwhelmed by her teacher’s towering presence, but even she shows the tentative stirrings of a fighting spirit. Tony Cadolino (a wonderful Brian Cali, who, like Antaramian, understudied his role in the Broadway Tyne Daly production), shows progressively more backbone, And, finally, Sharon Graham (a radiant Alicia O’Neill), who at first flees the stage to throw up in the bathroom but then returns to slowly, surely, assert herself in the presence of the master.

Two other cast members complete the picture: Dan Carrion as a hapless stagehand, and a solid Terry Lewis as Manny, the slightly cowed pianist. (Lewis’ accompaniment is first-rate.)

Director Joel Abels has crafted a precise yet informal tone to the proceedings, not an easy effect to pull off, and his use of the space — and the way he integrates the moments in the script when Callas lapses into soliloquies of remembrance — is deft, (Ben Holley does a nice job pushing the Shaghoian’s limited lighting grid to create a sense of intimacy and revelation.)

These solo moments are where the fireworks of the show occur, and they are, simply put, amazing. When Callas recounts her affair with the billionaire Aristotle Onassis, it’s with a ragged, brutal honesty. And in the high point, a rapturous recollection from Callas about a triumphant night at La Scala, it’s as if we’re there in the moment, inside her brain but also there with her on the stage, and as the recorded music swelled, I felt transported.

In his script, McNally has Callas return repeatedly to the theme of the “through line” of the artistic experience — how one singer builds upon the accomplishments of those who have come before, the famed roles in opera stretching all the way back to, say, the real Lady Macbeth herself. It’s the idea that art is part of the communal human experience, linking us to those who came before — and to those who will come after.

I thought of this theme in terms of the Maria Callas role in “Master Class” itself. Some powerful women have made this role their own: Zoe Caldwell, Patti LuPone, Faye Dunaway, Tyne Daly.

And Jacqueline Antaramian. What a privilege to be in the presence of a master.

Bee photo / Eric Paul Zamora

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Master Class’"

Amelia Ryan says:

I second this review. If you love the theatre, love great performances, do not miss this show!

Stephen says:

Your review is correct based on one thing: where you were sitting.

If you folks are going to see this show, you MUST sit close. Donald was perhaps 7-8 rows from the stage. I watched the first half just a couple of rows behind Donald, and Antaramian was tranfixed into the role of Callas, and when she demonstrates how to feel the music one must listen to, you can’t help but feel her palpable presence.

But I was a trifle late for the second act, and politely sat in the rear of the theatre. From there Antaramian is swallowed whole by the gigantic size of the big box that is the Shaghoian theatre. Her once-powerful voice (Callas cannot abide by microphones!) is almost lost, and certainly cannot compete against the piped-in sounds of Callas herself.

And either way, while I thought Ben Holley’s lights were…okay…every light move and change was done awkwardly and distracted me from what was important, usually Antaramian.

It is a privilege to be in the presence of a master, but from anything further back than the front orchestra seats? The master gets swallowed. I would personally have preferred an actual classroom, just so we could be closer to the master at work.

Final notes? I disagree with you on two points: If Callas is to be so moved as to be speechless by Cali’s performance, it had to be more for me – more beautiful, more dangerous, more “felt.”

And for character Sharon Graham to have purpose to her assertions against Callas, I felt we needed to see Callas’ efforts to break Graham down, rather than have the lights drop so low we never really see the radiant O’Neill and never get to realize her own transformation.

It’s crucial to sit close. When Callas discusses the climactic relatinship and decisions based on her love of Onassis (which could use perhaps a little historical referencing in the program for those who aren’t opera buffs like you, Donald), every facial, vocal and body change must be witnessed up-close, or Antaramian’s exquisite portrayal is only half as effective.

And final thought?

I can’t understand what the hell else Stageworks has to do to advertise this play. What’s up, people? Is Clovis North too far for you? The price a little high??

Three performances only.

Any more and Antaramian might collapse to her death from the sheer effort and full giving she gifts to us here in Fresno.

Just remember – sit close, or you might miss it.

pk says:

This had to be one of the best things I have EVER seen (Friday night performance)!!…..
Antaramian as Callas was mesmerizing–you could hear a pin drop during her soliloquies, just a breathtaking and gifted performance!
We are fortunate to have this ‘Broadway’ cast in town….
Just go see it!!

AND—
Thanks to the whole cast–it was inspiring to see Alicia O’Neill again, and hear her cultured, mature voice, Taylor and Terry as well, and the treat in Brian Cali–what a top-notch cast! Thanks to Joel Abels for his direction—
and bringing this to us—Bravo!!

johnnyb says:

I agree with all the rave reviews, and I thank the writer for the review yesterday or I wouldn’t have known about the production. But, the inability of the box office to sell tickets in a timely manner was mysterious. I guess they’re lucky they didn’t have a big crowd.

Marilee says:

We were transported by this performance! An unbelievable experience to be in the presence of a true master. We only wish that this opportunity to witness such an incredible talent as Jaquelyn Antamarian could have been seen by so many more Fresnans!
Thank you, Fresno Grand Opera, for once again giving us such a wonderful gift!

janet says:

Donald, you are most always right when it comes to the performing arts. After all, I would have probably passed up “The Drowsy Chaperone” (which surpassed my previous favorite production from GCP, “Chicago”) if it hadn’t been for your detailed and superlative review. But this, “Master Class”, was truly a feast for the audience. I was lucky to be 3rd row, center. Ms. Antaramian’s performance was astounding, and it left me simply speechless. Abel’s direction, as well as the whole cast, was brilliant. I thank all who worked so hard to bring this production to Fresno…we have certainly been blessed. Good luck to all in their careers!

Janet says:

Donald,
I am so glad that I took your review to heart. Once again, I trusted your heart-felt admonitions to not miss out on atttending “Master Class”. And once again, you proved yourself critically correct. The last time, it was “The Drowsy Chaperone”, which I whole-heartedly applauded! But, this production of “Master Class”, was simply a feast for theater attendees in The Valley. This was an astounding and brilliant production, in which we were graced by the performance of Jacqueline Antaramian. She was beyond superlative in her artistic investment to this role. I thank you for all that you did to “put the word out”. This production, including Joel Abels, the brilliant cast, all of the crew and everyone who helped in bringing this production to us—you are Applauded!