Hard on the round heels of her Cagney and Lacey co-star Sharon Gless impersonating a woman you almost certainly won’t have heard of, comes Tyne Daly in the stage personification of someone you couldn’t possibly have escaped hearing about unless you’d slept through the 20th century, its most famous operatic diva Maria Callas.

It’s also an occasion at Londonist Towers when the box of forbidden review clichés is momentarily unlocked and an editorial permit issued to sanction the usage of ‘tour de force’ and ‘bravura performance’ because this is an opportunity to savour an actress whose abilities were not so stretched by her television work demonstrate power and subtlety and pathos to rank alongside Tracie Bennett’s five-star portrayal of Judy Garland in last year’s barnstorming End of the Rainbow.

This is the second time a big-name American actress has essayed the role in London – in 1997 Patti LuPone gave us her Callas, but with her own reputation as a demanding and dominant stage presence not to mention already having played the ultimate diva Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, hers was more of a caricature whereas Daly’s engagement is both instantly credible and more sympathetic.

The format of the piece is simple – attended by a pianist and a stagehand, Daly recreates the master classes Callas gave at the Julliard School in New York at the end of her 20-year domination of the operatic stage, tutoring ordinary students.

Through the barbs and imperious asides she casts at them, we learn the truths of her own harsh wartime upbringing, hard-fought career path and painful love affair with the world’s richest man, Aristotle Onassis. In a cutaway scene where she plays both sides of the couple, and grunts Onassis’s claim that in return for her glamour and fame he gives her his “thick uncircumcised Greek dick” you can believe she actually has one dangling in her beautifully cut Martin Pakledinaz trouser suit.

A triumph of temperament over privilege, with points scored over rivals with more cushioned lives, it culminates in a magnificent moment at La Scala when she has the glitterati and the crowned heads of Europe where she wants them – standing in ovation to her achievements.

It could be static, and Terrence McNally’s script is undeniably patchy, but Daly’s performance drives the piece continuously, especially when she’s explaining the meaning and the music of an aria to her students – the passion and vigour with which she visualises each piece makes everything so clear and alive, you could wish ENO or Covent Garden would dispense with surtitles and just have Daly explain it all to you.

Master Class continues at the Vaudeville Theatre on an indefinite run, with tickets from £12.50 to £40 until 24 February (excluding half-term 11-18 Feb) then rising on 24 February to £25 to £52.50 plus assorted fees for all but personal and postal bookings with the theatre. Performances are Monday-Saturday at 7.30pm with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.30pm.  Tickets online here or by phoning 0844 811 0059 (24 hours).

Image by Johan Persson

Londonist Originally published on Londonist