Beacon Theater 2023 Review: Maria Callas: Letters & Memoirs
Tom Volf’s Latest Passion Project, Starring Monica Bellucci, Doesn’t Quite WorkBy David Salazar
On Jan. 27, 2023, the Beacon Theater played host to a historic performance of “Maria Callas: Letters and Memoirs.”
You could feel the buzz of the energy outside the theater where scores of people lined up on either side of the Beacon to come to the event which starred famed Italian actress Monica Bellucci. There were even people outside peddling picture books of the Italian diva, who by her own admission, was set to appear for the final time in this play.
Let’s backtrack a second. The play features Bellucci reciting numerous of Maria Callas’ letters, charting a path from the beginning of her career all the way to her death. It features an orchestra and samples of recordings from the famed opera legend, who predicted where opera is today with her commitment not only to magnetic vocal performances but also to intense portrayals of the characters she was interpreting. The play is the brainchild of Tom Volf, the man whose Callas devotion has yielded the wonderful “Maria by Callas” documentary and a number of other adjacent projects including an exhibit and even a book of letters.
Volf’s vision for the play kicked off prior to the pandemic, but endured through the lockdown and eventually saw the light in the form of an international tour in France and Greece, among other countries.
The New York performance, which coincides with the centennial of Maria Callas’ birth (she was born in December of 1923 and as Bellucci narrates at one point, there’s some controversy over whether she was born on Dec. 2 or 4), is expected to be the final one of the run, after which a documentary is forthcoming.
Given Volf’s trajectory and dedication to Callas (and especially the brilliance of “Maria by Callas”), the final result of this play was… underwhelming, plodding, and confusing for those who missed out on Volf’s previous work.
Confusion & Lack of Direction
At the core of the experience was Bellucci, dressed in Callas’ very own dress, reciting letters from a sofa. Behind her, two screens projected the names of the people the letter was directed to and the date of the letter. The upstage area was also resident to an orchestra performing excerpts from famed operas in between the readings.
The entire setup of the show was the first misfire because it created one major unanswered question – who was this show aimed at? If this was for opera neophytes who were simply there to see Bellucci in the flesh, then the setup did nothing to help engross them in the experience. There was no context for who the addressees of the letters were. If you missed out on the fact that Elvira de Hidalgo was Callas’ voice teacher during the first letter addressed to her, then the next few times she cropped up you would be none the wiser. There were two letters addressed to De Hidalgo in the late 60s in which Callas talks about her heart being broken. If you had no idea that the subtext to all this was the Onassis-Jackie Kennedy marriage happening at the time, then you missed a lot of context about why these letters were so important. And more importantly, if you knew nothing about Callas outside of her status as a legend, you would not be at fault for thinking she was an endlessly troubled and victimized woman who lived a tragic life.
In interviews, especially in Volf’s very own documentary, we can see that Callas exuded joie-de-vivre that counterpointed the complex relationships she had with a hostile audience and the abusive men in her life. Unfortunately, given the nature of the letters picked for the show, and Bellucci’s own performance, Callas’ personality came across as one-dimensional. That also brought about the question of whether Bellucci was interpreting Callas or being a narrator. Given her reading of the letters and the lack of physical or vocal mannerisms associated with Callas, it felt more like the latter than the former, but the lack of clarity across the board diminished the experience. This felt more like a directorial misfire than a performance one.
The fact that there was no program whatsoever did not help matters and was a massive head-scratcher. I came into the performance with background on the show and ample knowledge of Callas’ life and career. I knew what the years meant in the context of her life and that 1967 meant we were approaching the end. But for those who had no idea, the show might have felt interminable with no sense of progress and no end in sight. The play, in a way, took for granted the audience and expected that they had already seen Volf’s documentary, or knew historical facts and details about Callas’ life and could enjoy this as an appendix for that. But audiences walking in and out throughout the show suggested that more than a few people might have been on the edge of their seats for the purposes of exiting the theater as quickly as possible.
Then there was the musical component. The orchestra, which was conducted by Mercedes Juan Musotto (if not for a social media comment by Brooke DeRosa on 360° of Opera’s post of the show we would never know because… there was no program), felt very out-of-synch throughout the night. But the bigger issue came down to what they were asked to do which was often play the introduction to a piece (“Casta Diva” or “Suicidio”) before a recording of Callas took over. It made sense for Callas’ legendary voice to have a presence in the performance but this came off as rather awkward at the start of the show. For opera aficionados (and here comes the reason why this show never felt intended for them), it must have been frustrating to see truncated renditions of such legendary recordings. Time might have been of the essence, especially given the plodding pace, but by rushing through the opera recordings, the balance became increasingly strained. Perhaps the biggest misfire came right at the end. The solo cellist (whose name should have been mentioned in the non-existent program) performed the intro to “La Mamma Morta.” Bellucci related one final letter and then… we got a jarring recording of the climax of “La Mamma morta” without any buildup; it literally started at “Io sono il dio che sovra il mondo,” approximately 40 seconds before the recording, which clocks in at 5 minutes, ends. An aria like that is so legendary precisely because of how Callas sculpts every phrase up to that incredible outpouring of emotion. Without it, not only are you cheating the audience, but also undercutting the artist you are trying to honor on the night. It felt like the show might have benefitted from less letters (or at least more varied ones), less music, and allowing audiences to actually enjoy complete recordings instead of truncated ones (though to be fair, “Vissi d’arte” was presented in its entirety).
Other strange musical choices included the decision to perform Charlotte’s “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes” back-to-back, first with a solo violin (whose name should have been mentioned in the non-existent program) and orchestra and then with a solo piano (played by Musotto). Given that this was a show centered on letters and this is one of the most famous Letter scenes in opera, the choice made sense. But why we needed it twice in a row instead of interspersed throughout the show as a connective tissue of sorts made it a confounding choice for the overall narrative.
On the whole, the entire experience also took on a repetitive feel after the novelty wore off. Bellucci would read a letter or two, then a musical interlude would follow, and the pattern would start again at infinitum.
The Beacon’s Woes
And despite the flaws of Volf’s conception and execution, nothing was more egregious than the hosts of the entire performance. The Beacon Theater, as I noted earlier, was playing at the role of the host. And I don’t pick that word lightly because the night was a mess from an organizational standpoint.
The performance was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. but it ended up starting 30 minutes late. But it was what happened during the show that really embarrassed this famed hall. Despite signs asking for no photography throughout the evening, the entire performance was littered with flash photography as it became increasingly evident that people were more interested in getting a shot of Bellucci than engaging with the play. Throw in the aforementioned walking in and out ad nauseum and it was impossible not to be distracted.
Then there was the noise, with ushers and other workers outside the hall audible INSIDE the space while they conversed on their walkie talkies. At one point there was a persistent beeping sound in the hall. We never quite figured out if it was inside or outside but it seems like some of the lighting technicians heard it too and thought it might be coming from them. They fumbled around their equipment trying to find out what was happening, in the process testing out things and even turning on a massive blue computer light that was clearly not intended for the show (it threw off Bellucci momentarily). The sound eventually dissipated of its own accord, only to be followed by a disturbing audience member who decided to play some videos on their phone and laugh for several minutes. Another audience member reprimanded the culprit who stopped momentarily only to get back to it moments later.
All of these distractions burdened the show with no sign of any ushers in the vicinity to do anything. They were clearly around, as their persistent conversations outdoors suggested, but they never did anything to stop the flash photography or prevent people from disturbing the performance.
It was nothing short of an embarrassment for the Beacon Theater and, given that this show toured the world, New York City, which when compared to the behavior of other international audiences, is usually one of the most loving and supportive audiences there could be. On this night, they were anything but that. Sure, the applause at the end was enthusiastic, but the behavior throughout the night suggested otherwise.
Ultimately, this one-off show proved an interesting experiment, if not a wholly successful one. The administrative and organizational aspects of it were the biggest misfire, but the work itself seemed lost in how it aimed to connect with its audience and even what it wanted to be. I think that people who love Callas will certainly find something to love here. Or at least to appreciate, especially in her centennial year. But everyone else, especially those who came for Bellucci, were not given a proper portrait of arguably the greatest opera diva of all time.
Volf’s work always seems to demystify Callas by centering Maria as a woman who had to find a balance between a complex personal life and the titanic expectations her career placed on her. While he has been successful in this endeavor numerous times before, this show found a way to undermine both Maria and Callas.