It is a thrilling pairing on paper: the impossibly glamorous actor Monica Bellucci playing the impossibly glamorous soprano Maria Callas, a case of one diva paying homage to another.
Bellucci looks every inch the part in an elegant black dress and hair pulled back for the trademark Callas look. She narrates from the opera singer’s posthumously published book of letters and unfinished memoirs, and this one-off, one-woman show gathers in emotion – perhaps inevitably so given the power of Callas’s voice (which we hear in recordings) and her melodramatic life.
But it has eccentricities and off-notes too, including Bellucci’s delivery; she speaks with a wispy breathlessness, more Marilyn Monroe than Callas, and it is unfortunate that her voice does not always carry across the auditorium given Callas’s range.
She lounges on a cream sofa, spot-lit on a darkened stage with luminous projections of Callas’s writing on the back screen and heaps of roses strewn at her feet. The set exudes a corny kind of romance: all that is missing is a man in a tuxedo with a rose held between his teeth.
A gramophone next to the sofa plays music in pauses between Bellucci’s narration and it is moving to hear Callas’s glorious voice in pieces from Madame Butterfly, La Traviata, Medea, Norma and Macbeth. This gramophone, intermittently spotlit, almost becomes the production’s louder, more expressive second character.
It is confusing that the titles of the musical pieces are not given and there are other more serious failings in the show’s framing. Under Tom Volf’s direction, the back-screen shows the names of those Callas writes to as well as dates (although from my seat in the stalls I could not see the full screen). They range from her godfather, Leonidas Lantzounis, to Grace Kelly and various singers and musicians. We are given nothing more than their names, however little-known they may be. Neither do we understand the full meaning of some letters: she writes to Pier Paolo Pasolini about something that has happened which is left unexplained. She asks the Spanish soprano Elvira de Hidalgo if she can wear her jewellery on stage, but we do not know if the subtext here is that she wants to honour De Hidalgo or to symbolically take her crown.
Because no greater context is offered, we struggle to join the narrative dots and distinguish the facts from strains of self-mythologising. It becomes hard to know if the production is aimed at opera aficionados (given the lack of basic signposting) or initiates (given its briefness). It lasts 75 minutes and only touches on the big events of Callas’s complicated life, from her difficult mother to her failed marriage to Giovanni Battista Meneghini and problems with her voice.
But we do build a picture of her inner highs and lows. There is wide-eyed wonder at the effects her voice has on the crowds. The most charged letters come at the end of her nine-year relationship with Aristotle Onassis, who she writes to with desperate passion, but who breaks it off and marries Jackie Kennedy without telling her.
There is, by the end, a sense of a disappointed woman who feels grateful for the life she has lived but insists that we can only ever rely on ourselves. Despite all the letters to her friends, the abiding emotion is loneliness.