Thursday, 10 November 2016


Esplanade Recital Studio
Tuesday (8 November 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 10 November 2016 with the title "Laying bare famous soprano Maria Callas".

On 16 September 1977, alone in a Paris apartment, the great Greek-American diva Maria Callas died, apparently of a heart attack. She had been the world's most famous dramatic soprano, hailed as La Divina. Yet she had been 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 world-weary 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, 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 angst-ridden eyes was totally 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.

Italian lyric soprano Silvio Cafiero had the demanding task of playing Callas, and did a more than creditable job singing a range of arias from her iconic operatic roles. She 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, and 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, of course, 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 by Fiorenza de Monti was simple and effective, a tea-table, chair, portrait of a reclining diva (Between Hours by Edward B. Gordon, courtesy of LUMAS) and a red shawl, the latter used to very good effect.

The slightly over-an-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 de Regiment), the essence of each was not lost. At least the audience got to hear the popular favourites Bizet's Habañera (Carmen), Puccini's Vissi d'arte (Tosca) and O Mio Babbino Caro (Gianni Schicchi) intact.

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.     

Pianist Claudio Di Meo, soprano Silvia Cafiero,
Director Sabrina Zuber, playwright Federica Nardacci
and actor Gerald Chew (from L).

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