Review: Demystifying a Diva in ‘Maria by Callas’

Review: Demystifying a Diva in ‘Maria by Callas’

Toward the end of “Maria by Callas,” the legendary opera singer (1923-1977) describes the music she interprets as “the only language I really know.” That description is belied by this documentary, a compendium of interviews, performances and writings from Callas in which she proves an eloquent narrator of her own life.

By sifting through these materials four decades after Callas’s death, the movie aims to correct a popular perception — spread by the news media and interpretive biographies (Terrence McNally’s play “Master Class”) — that Callas was a diva offstage as well as on.

Whether the results qualify as a comprehensive portrayal is best debated by opera historians, but what is clear is that “Maria by Callas” provides an excellent introduction to Callas’s artistry. The director, Tom Volf, allows several arias to play in full, so that it’s possible to hear the astonishing sustained quality of her voice and to see, in performances of Bizet and Bellini, among others, what we are repeatedly told — that she was also a good actress.

The documentary runs, chronologically, through career highlights, including a ridiculed 1958 performance of “Norma” that was canceled after one act (Callas had bronchitis) to her eyebrow-raising more-than-friendship with Aristotle Onassis, which began when both were married to others and ended, for a while anyway, after she learned, apparently from news reports, that he was marrying Jackie Kennedy.

The movie is to Callas what last year’s “Jane” was to Jane Goodall: A documentary that revitalizes history through primary sources, to illuminating, at times enthralling effect.

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