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.