By Terrence McNally. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Directed by Liesel Badorrek. 14 June – 20 July, 2024

Reviewed : 19 June, 2024*

Photo : Prudence Upton

Lucia Mastrantone channels every strong woman, diva or director, in her stunning interpretation of Maria Callas. As she enters the stage she commands the attention of the audience, who immediately become the awe-stricken disciples of the master in action. She frowns as she admonishes them for applauding, and as silence falls, begins the lesson-cum-memoir that Terrence McNally has carefully researched and crafted. Though a diminutive figure, she affects the power and control of talent and fame and sustains in throughout a stunning performance.

Photo : Prudence Upton

A diva of Australian theatre herself, Mastrantone is no stranger to challenging roles, and Callas is challenging. Under the sure and perceptive direction of Leisel Badorrek, she becomes the famous diva for nearly two hours. With no opportunity to leave the stage, she keeps the audience – and her three nervous but talented students and a patient, tolerant pianist – on their toes and focused. Her eyes sweep constantly; her expressions and gestures, as considered and forceful as her words, leave no doubt that the woman she portrays is in control … but has worked hard to get there.

In moments of introspection she allows the ‘mask’ to slip and we see glimpses of the young singer working her way up … and the mature women caught between fame and independence and the coercive control of a rich and famous lover. Mastrantone finds the emotional recall of those memories poignantly but not wistfully – more as part of the armour that Callas felt the need to build around herself.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Musical director (and composer/sound designer) Maria Alfonsine becomes the accompanist for Callas’s students – portraying a studious, intense young pianist, a little cowed by the diva, but sure of her own ability and a little protective of the students for whom she will play. Blinking a little timidly behind her glasses, carefully aware, and reacting quickly albeit a little tensely to questions and instructions, Alfonsine establishes the character clearly and succinctly – as does Damian De Boos-Smith (also composer/sound designer) who plays a nervous stage hand as well as accompanying the young students in their master class.

Those students are played by Elisa Colla, Bridget Patterson and Matthew Reardon, all of whom portray differing aspects of appropriate nervousness in front of the diva … and operatic talent.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Their different reactions to her questions and critiques cover all the conceivable responses one might expect: anxious withdrawal, fretful despair, determined persistence. All three are highly trained musicians and their voices thrill, whether “faltering” under the gaze of the ‘master’ – or filling the Ensemble with song.

Leisel Badorrek directs with the precision and care necessary for a production that brings actors and audience together so openly – and the insight necessary to inspire a tightly disciplined compelling production. Brava Badorrek! Brava Mastrantone!

*Opening Performance