Maria Callas – Letters and Memoirs review: Monica Bellucci’s London stage debut is a Callas-tastrophe

·2-min read
Monica Bellucci as Maria Callas  (Handout)
Monica Bellucci as Maria Callas (Handout)

There’s an undeniable thrill at seeing Monica Bellucci, the arthouse bombshell who brought class and continental sensuality to the Bond and Matrix franchises, live on a London stage for the first time. But it dies about two minutes into this lamentable meander through the personal scribblings of postwar opera star Maria Callas. You could call this one-night stand a Callas-tastrophe.

There’s little here to interest anyone who isn’t already obsessively knowledgeable about the Greek-American soprano who stormed the classical world in the 1950s, preceded Jackie Kennedy in Aristotle Onassis’s bed, and died aged 52 in 1975. Bellucci, who deliciously spoofed her own sultry image in Call My Agent!, is spectacularly wooden and dull. The combined London fans of both women didn’t quite fill Her Majesty’s Theatre last night.

Bellucci looks amazing and is spectacularly well lit throughout. That’s the faintest praise I can muster. Statuesque in a black silk dress, hair scraped back but with garage-door eyelashes working overtime, she recites extracts from Callas’s letters and diaries in a breathy, languid monotone. On stage, her voice has a lisping sibilance that’s never been notable on film.

The action largely consists of her moving from a standing to a seated to a reclining odalisque pose on a gold sofa next to a gramophone on a rose-strewn stage. Callas’s words are projected behind and then over her, as recordings of famous arias give way to plangent piano music, signaling the decline of the diva’s voice.

Even in the ranks of lazy star vehicles this would be an also-ran (Handout)
Even in the ranks of lazy star vehicles this would be an also-ran (Handout)

My god, the source material is dull, though, a mix of self-pity, self-aggrandisement and banality. “I will become the queen of singing in Italy and maybe everywhere,” she tells her mentor in 1948. “I hope to see you and Rainier very soon,” she tells Grace Kelly in 1965. “We can only count on ourselves,” she tells Pier Paulo Pasolini in 1975. Wow, thanks for that Maria, I’ll write that down.

There’s no attempt to contextualise Callas’s relevance for a modern audience and even in the ranks of lazy star vehicles this would be an also-ran. Mainly, director Tom Volf wants to recast Callas as a martyr who sacrificed love, health and life to her gift, rather than the “tigress” of legend. In practice that just means another rehash of her professional and personal disasters.

Volf has created two books, an exhibition and a film about Callas but appears to have no notable previous theatre experience. In 2019, Bellucci did some readings in Paris to support an anthology of Callas’s writings. Somehow the two of them came together to create this stultifying evening. As a Bellucci fan, I was delighted to watch the curtain rise. Within minutes, I really, really thought that she should call her agent.

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