New work is a Grimeborn essential and, with Madame X, the composer Tim Benjamin refreshingly provided a coherently-shaped opera that succeeds in sustaining interest over nearly two hours. It even deals with philosophical themes — admittedly somewhat schematically, but the same can be said of The Rake's Progress, surely one of its forebears. Its fluent, well-crafted score offers some striking moments, such as the anacreonitic drinking song, a sermonizing offstage church choir and passages of forceful arioso for the villain of the piece.
In the informative programme, Benjamin — who, advised by the dramaturge Anthony Peter, also wrote the allusion-filled libretto — openly acknowledged his debt to the Baroque, notably Handel, and to composers of more recent eras. The scoring, for strings, [woodwind], and harpsichord/organ — conducted by Antony Brannick — sounded surprisingly rich in the Arcola's narrow space, occasionally challenging the singers.
The plot centres on a modern-day couple called Masetto and Zerlina; as in Mozart, she is an alluring soprano (Laura Sheerin), but he is a tenor (Tom Morss) — a brilliant, but penniless portraitist, whose verbal expression is confined to quoting the names of paintings. (He remains something of a cipher and we have to take his supposed genius on trust; the designer, Lara Booth, wisely kept his canvases blank).
Further references are made to Don Giovanni; there is an amoral and powerful bass-baritone in the art collector Wilmore (Marc Callahan), who, like Robert Redford in Indecent Proposal, buys Zerlina for a night at the end of Act 1; and, after things have turned nasty, there is a flavour of dinner with the Commendatore in the climactic scene of vengeance at a vernissage, though it remains uncertain whehter the fatal intervention is supernatural.
In Benjamin's own production, the cast gave consistently strong performances: Morss passionately focused, Sheerin's voice gaining weight and depth as the plot thickened, and Callahan providing wickedly glamorous tone; the tangy mezzo Taylor Wilson was chic and vainglorious as Masetto's aristocratic patron and as his dodgy, platitude-spouting agent, the baritone Jon Stainsby (Botney) displayed outstandingly alert responses to text, music and stage partners.