The Arcola has opened the doors to its annual Grimeborn Opera Festival, showing its great diversity and flavour in its programming but also that it’s a theatre that welcomes new work from many genres. Madame X is one of the festival entries, a new opera by Tim Benjamin exploring the struggles of an artist and his muse and what an important influence art and the vanity that comes with it have on us. With NYT’s upcoming Selfie, and The Picture of Dorian Gray being frequently produced, Madame X is another echo of our generation of self-obsession and its destruction.
The opera tells the story of a struggling, foreign artist and his muse trying to survive a harsh industry full of critics, money and corruption. When Masetto, a master portrait painter, exhibits his new paintings of his lover Zerlina, the ugly sides of man reveal themselves as the wealthy Mr Wilmore lusts for the young muse, and Lady Brannoch for the immortalisation of her own youth and desire. Being poor and without options, Masetto and Zerlina agree to Mr Wilmore’s indecent proposal to help, with grave consequences for the lovers’ future. As tragedy unfolds, Masetto plots his revenge on capitalism and the self-obsession corrupting the people he paints.
Great new opera is a rarity with revivals dominating the majority of stages, so it is always exciting discovering new work performed by young artists as with Madame X. The majority of the cast are at the beginning of their careers and in a confined space like the Arcola they shine with a refreshing energy, creating a vibrant atmosphere in the small setting of Masetto’s apartment. The chorus master a sense of individuality coupled with the important unison it needs, and though it is a small cast we get a right volume and sense of grandness. Jon Stainsby has great comic timing and a gorgeous rounded baritone, and Taylor Wilson shines as an artsy Cruella de Vil-ish Lady Brannoch, extremely charismatic yet shrill. Laura Sheerin finds a beautiful balance between innocence and a feisty spirit as Zerlina, with a voice ready for the big stage. Tom Morss’ tenor hits your bones as Masetto’s life crumbles, and all in all the vocal performances are excellent with a few muddy passages. Acting-wise it’s a bit blander with some scenes being driven by a melodramatic tendency rather than truthfulness, which seems to come down to a deeper focus on the vocal performance.
The score is beautifully composed and has many delicious flavours and shades. Musically it’s very exciting, however the libretto doesn’t really resonate with the modern staging, and some passages seem rather clumsy in text and dramatic development. The story stumbles a few times and dramatically it’s never really driven, but seems more like a brief account on an artist’s life. Laura Booth’s design however is excitingly simple with blank canvasses displayed all over the studio, forcing the audience to project their own imaginary paintings onto Masetto’s exhibition.
All in all Madame X has potential and is very relevant in today’s selfie-generation obsessed with the role of the self-artist and constantly projecting our own image onto the world. Musically it’s a new opera that will stick with you with its beautifully composed variation in score. As a whole performance it needs more work, digging a little deeper to reveal what essentially can be a very powerful piece.