Review- Madame X at Grimeborn 26/8/14

Whichever production I see, I am always excited to be at the Arcola for the Grimeborn festival. Having heard quite a bit about Madame X from its composer Tim Benjamin I was sure the evening would throw up some interesting questions.

On arrival the libretto is on sale in addition to a pleasingly detailed programme for this size of production. The libretto is akin to an art book with each page of text printed opposite a painting, plus the circumstances of each artist including their financial situation. The main theme of this new opera becomes quickly apparent- Madame X uses variety of dramatic and musical techniques to explore questions surrounding art and money.

The characters of Massetto and Zerlina are reminiscent of Monzart’s Don Giovanni re-formed in to a struggling painter and his muse/fiancée who are trying to survive in a harsh industry mired by corruption. They are advised (very poorly) by their agent Botney who is played and sung masterfully by Jon Stainsby with a rich and assured baritone. The Don Giovanni of Madame X is the capitalist Mr Wilmore, though this is a much less ambiguous character whose ruthless seduction of Zerlina rips away the charm and intrigue often associated with the character. The libretto is not one to draw you in to a flowing prose. Massetto the artist only speaks in the titles of paintings and Botney comically reals off aphorisms. This forces the audience to take a step back in a Brechtian manner, and interpret the meaning for themselves by re-interpreting seemingly familiar musical reference points and recognisable clichés juxtaposed against a set of empty frames and blank canvases. To me this also cleverly nods towards how you are so often put in situations where you are forced to wade through jargon and buzzwords, and interpret them often with no clear conclusion. Questions of art and power in a self obsessed society resonate deeply with a contemporary audience and the setting of Grimeborn.

In a production which aims to subvert expectations and build up many layers of meaning it is imperative that the performances are top notch with clearly thought out dramatic performances alongside confident vocals. So a lot to ask of a group of young singers. Overall they delivered well, with particular mention to Laura Sheerin as Zerlina who provides a character to invest in, and she coolly enacts a scene of Jacobean revenge when Madame X takes a dark twist at the end of the tragedy to provide the audience with just a small amount of closure. The macabre finale felt inevitable but still effective, after all with the opposing agendas driving each of the characters it could never end well.

Studio 1 at the Arcola is a fantastic space both visually and acoustically, which in Madame X only helped to emphasise the singers excellent voices, and the orchestra who were cleverly tucked under the gallery seating. Musically Madame X delivers with an enthralling score and enjoyable tuneful passages alongside the more avant guard. The Baroque influences shone through amongst a variety of interesting textures which drove the work forward. Dramatically this piece has the potential to be an intense study of a potent issue and complex concepts. On this occasion there was the odd moment where the energy dropped and perhaps this young cast could have delved a little deeper in terms of character development. However, this is a new opera that will ask questions which will play on your mind long after the curtain call accompanied by Tim Benjamin’s beautiful score.


An Interview with Tim Benjamin- Madame X Exposition

Tim Benjamin undoubtedly comes across as a busy and cheerful man, with a get-in and final rehearsals followed by a first night all on a bank holiday Monday. His new opera Madame X has already had some outings up north in his home county of Yorkshire, and now has a three night run as part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston.

We manage to catch up on a late Sunday afternoon and Tim is eager to chat about his latest opera. He states that the preparations have gone well and also expresses how pleased he is so far with the audience’s reactions. This has been determined with feedback forms – the audience seem to have received the dark humour prevalent in the production well, and overall thought the work excellent. Sounds promising. Tim points out that the forms suggest that “over half the audience hadn’t been to see an opera before”, and that they “were likely or very likely to want to go again” after seeing Madame X. He puts a good deal of this down to the clever and tailored multi-media marketing with “lots online, social media” and the trailer “shot like an indie film trailer”. We talk some more about the appeal of opera. Making opera more accessible and available to a wider audience is a subject that Tim speaks passionately and pragmatically on. He points out that this work certainly isn’t deliberately trying to attract everyone, just to add something else in to the mix. “The marketing is doing well and if people like that then [Madame X] will appeal to them.”

The musical language, Tim describes as accessible and “tuneful with a dark touch.” Having a penchant for Baroque music myself, I was very keen to hear more on how Madame X takes inspiration from this style of music. He explains that the “Baroque style is absorbed in to the whole piece, rather than having a modern story plus Baroques music.” The ideas of recitative and aria are loosely present and the structure also takes influence from the Baroque style. Although at approximately 1hr 50mins it’s not the length of many Baroque operas, which probably adds to the works wider appeal. Tonality wise, Tim heads more towards the tonal end of the spectrum, like Shostakovich his music “changes key and is a bit chromatic, but tuneful.” I’m advised to watch out for the Portrait scene, which Tim found very enjoyable to write and he hopes is as fun to watch.

Tim is keen to point out that his singers have great diction making the work easy to follow. The singers were chosen from a mixture of open auditions and previous colleagues. Clearly pleased, he notes that these auditions were massively oversubscribed and there was no shortage of young talent. Auditionees were required to perform a bit of Baroque, a bit in English and, I was glad to hear, to act. Tim continues, “it’s in no way a simplified opera though, it has a simple plot compared to lots of Baroque operas but it asks the audience a lot of questions.”

In addition to composing Madame X, Tim wrote the libretto and has subsequently directed the work. So how did he find it covering all these roles? “Well I know how it goes and the intentions behind it, but I know one person driving can be mono focused, so I do use a dramaturge.” This dramaturge it transpires is also a very good baker, which is a sure fire way of keeping a cast and crew cheerful- an army does march on its stomach! Tim also spoke of how the dramaturge being used to working in the theatre largely with plays and spoken word, was a very good second eye for the drama and staging.

Summer 2013 saw the premier of Tim’s opera Emily, and keen to keep momentum going he began the libretto for Madame X around September 2013. Tim starts with the words, as “the libretto is also the structure”, it’s like looking at the work in the broadest sense. The words of course can be a little flexible, and Tim says that a few changed throughout the composition. The Baroque style influences also came later from the text as the story had a Jacobean revenge drama feel, “it made sense.”

So why write opera? Tim explains that he has a long history with writing music for the stage, and enjoys it. He wrote a musical aged 15, followed by a series of short works and incidental music. He points out that he would of course like to do large scale, big opera house size productions, but doesn’t actually feel limited by smaller forces. Tim says the nine singers in the production make an awesome sound, and to showcase this he chose to have them all singing together close to the end of Madame X. “Plus in a smaller venue it is a particularly massive sound, and is a more intimate experience. An opera singer performing just a foot away from you is very loud.” As for Grimeborn as a festival, Tim likes its different approach from other fringe opera festivals in London. Tête à Tête for example, gives you a chance to see three productions in one night. The downside to this is not immersing yourself in one more complete work. “[Grimeborn at the Arcola] lets you put on a full length more elaborate production, lower risk than somewhere like The Linbury [at the ROH] of course, but a great showcase.”

Tim is considering a tour next year- “if [Madame X] is a hit with public we may as well do it again; it all fits in to a transit van and there’s not too many people to organise. We’ve got everything together now.” Ideally lots of people from the opera business turn up to shows like this, then it could be a spring board. Tim still does a lot himself as mentioned in terms of creative input, but also the organisational side. If Madame X does tour, Tim talks of how he hopes it would do well in Oxford-sized towns, but also that he would definitely like to take it back up north. He says that the opera scene is all too often London focused, with which I myself as a northerner am predisposed and inclined to agree with. Is there enough of a demand in the northern half of England for more opera productions? Could more fringe opera and more funding help fill a space which currently is occupied by little but for that which Opera North offers? Opera North do some wonderful work, but there is only so much one big company can do across such a large area. Arguably, the positive response from Madame X’s premier in Yorkshire and the audience’s subsequent desire to see more opera in the future would suggest there is a need.

After chatting some more in detail about the extent of funding and varying levels of accessibility of the arts across Britain, I say that I’d better let him go for some rest before a hectic day ahead. But no, Tim says he is probably off to the pub. Hopefully I can buy Tim a drink in the Arcola bar after seeing Madame X, and after our conversation I predict this will be a congratulatory drink. I will let you know in a review to follow later this week!

Make sure you try and catch Madame X at The Arcola Theatre as part of the Grimeborn Festival 26th- 28th August 2014.

The Guardian provide a good breakdown of the storm on crictics recent comments around singers appearance

The Guardian provide a good breakdown of the storm around crictics recent comments on singers appearance

Although, I’m sure most people have caught some of the recent row in the Opera world surrounding critics comment on Tara Erraught’s performance in her début at Glyndebourne, the Guardian provides a good overview for those like me who have been too busy to weigh in while it was still hot.  Critics bashing performer’s looks is not a new thing and it could be said, if you put yourself out there you should to be prepared to take it. However, male or female reviewer aside, commenting in the manner involved in this incident seems overly harsh and isn’t sending out the right message about the opera community. Plus Tara seems to have given a stunning vocal performance, she certainly doesn’t look fat and it probably was the costume, and if she acted the role well I wouldn’t care anyway.

Simon Rattle leads a revolution at the Royal Opera House

Simon Rattle leads a revolution at the Royal Opera House

Graham Vick over at the Birmingham Opera Company is well known for involving members of the community in his productions, and now Streetwise Opera and Simon Rattle have helped infiltrated the ROH with ex-cons and homeless. This show has been getting cracking reviews and perhaps a core part of this is that those on stage have more of an edge- in that they can utilise their personal experiences to excellent effect translating them in to strong performances on the stage. These are performers who, it could be said,  can bring a more truthful account of a character and offer something new to the regular opera audience while also encouraging those who may not usually attend. This Guardian article is a good read.

The Best of The Guardian and The Telegraph’s recent Opera Articles

The Guardian has two previews for us.

Firstly, Phelim McDermott and designer Tom Pye discuss setting Cosi in a fairground in the upcoming ENO production of the Mozart classic.

Secondly, the WNO chorus are apparently having fun with the orgy scene in their forthcoming production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.

The Telegraph are praising the tradition of country house opera festivals,  while apparently politicians aren’t turning up to opera anymore. Not the right image for them perhaps? Though if they are going to have a say in arts funding I really do think they should at least bother to go along once in a while…

Inside Opera #insideopera

Inside Opera #insideopera

If anyone else like me missed the Inside Opera Live event yesterday you can catch it all here and also check out the #insideopera conversation on twitter.

2pm Welcome, interview with Oliver Mears (NI Opera), Kasper Holten (ROH), Richard Mantle (Opera North) and Alex Reedjik (Scottish Opera)
2:10pm FILM: The making of La bohème from Opera North
2:30pm INTERVIEW: Conductor and Assistant Director of Opera North’s production of La bohème, Ilyich Rivas and James Hurley.
2:40pm INTERVIEW: Michael Rosewell, Music Director for English Touring Opera.
2:45pm FILM: Opera that Moves, from English Touring Opera
3:05pm LIVE LINK: English Touring Opera on stage at Warwick Arts Centre
3:10pm FILM: Irish Premiere of Importance of Being Earnest from Northern Ireland Opera
3:25pm INTERVIEW: Northern Ireland Opera’s Artistic Director Oliver Mears
3.35pm INTERVIEW: Alex Reedijk, General Director of Scottish Opera
3:40pm LIVE LINK: Scottish Opera in Edinburgh.
3:45pm FILM: The Costumes of Donna Elvira from Scottish Opera
4:10pm LIVE LINK: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with baritone Gerald Finley
4:15pm FILM: Meet the Company from Welsh National Opera
4:30pm FILM: The Get In from Welsh National Opera
4:35pm INTERVIEW: Kasper Holten, Director, The Royal Opera
4:40pm FILM: Becoming Zerlina from The Royal Opera
5:15pm LIVE LINK: Welsh National Opera in Wrexham
5:20pm INTERVIEW: Sky Ingram and Duncan Rock from Opera North’s production of La bohème
5:25pm LIVE LINK: English National Opera with Music Director Edward Gardner, at the London Coliseum
5:35pm LIVE LINK: Soprano Julia Sporsén, principal singer in Thebans, from the London Coliseum
5:40pm FILM: Behind the Scenes at English National Opera
5:50pm LIVE LINK: Northern Ireland Opera in Armagh
5:55pm LIVE PERFORMANCE: Errollyn Wallen’s aria, written in just four hours and performed by baritone Dawid Kimberg.”

where is opera going?