Laying bare famous opera soprano Maria Callas



Esplanade Recital Studio/Tuesday

On Sept 16, 1977, alone in a Paris apartment, the great GreekAmerican diva Maria Callas died, apparently of a heart attack. She was the world's most famous dramatic soprano, hailed as La Divina. Yet she was ill, lovelorn and vulnerable at the very end, a pale shadow of her former self.

The Black Pearl, receiving its Asian premiere, is a play by Federica Nardacci with music, originally in Italian, but performed in an excellent English translation.

In it, the tormented and worldweary persona of Maria is separated from the celebrity and superstar of Callas. Laid bare, La Divina was as human as the next person, fraught with insecurities and ultimately wanting of love and understanding.

The narration, related through the character of butler Ferruccio, was rendered by Singaporean actor-director Gerald Chew, whose tortured expression and angstridden eyes were believable. Central to his soliloquy was the utterance of the word "silence", which meant the cessation of singing, sound and life itself.

Opening with a throbbing heartbeat, the story began with mortality and moved backwards in time to the so-called glory years.

Taking on the demanding task of playing Callas, Italian lyric soprano Silvia Cafiero did a more than creditable job, singing a range of arias from Callas' iconic operatic roles.

Cafiero has a beautiful and pristine voice, capable of projecting with power and vibrato, yet capable of diminuendos (diminishing the volume) to a just audible hush, without missing a note.

Her first aria was Desdemona's Ave Maria from Verdi's Otello, a moving prayer of rapt stillness. Before long, she was seeking a distant beloved's return in Un Bel Di Vedremo from Puccini's Madama Butterfly, and reliving Violetta's dying scene in Verdi's La Traviata. Allied to this was an innate ability to emote and act out the part, which was Callas' speciality and strength.

The "orchestra" for the evening was Italian pianist Claudio Di Meo, who accompanied the arias and expertly filled in the gaps with interludes of his own device.

The set design was simple and effective - a tea table, chair, portrait of a reclining diva (by Fiorenza De Monti) and a red shawl. The shawl was used to very good effect.

The hour-long play in two acts never dragged, and even when certain arias were truncated, such as Sempre Libera (La Traviata) and the concluding Convien Partir (Donizetti's La Fille Du Regiment), the essence of each was not lost.

At least the audience got to hear in entirety the favourites - Bizet's Habanera (Carmen) as well as Puccini's Vissi D'Arte (Tosca) and O Mio Babbino Caro (Gianni Schicchi).

The only pity was not having Cafiero do the honours in the bel canto gem that is Casta Diva (Bellini's Norma).

Instead, emanating from the speakers was the recording of La Divina herself, played after all the characters had departed the stage. Even that was cut short after a climax, perhaps deliberately so. Beyond all that was darkness and... silence.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2016, with the headline 'Laying bare famous opera soprano Maria Callas'. Subscribe