The core idea is simple. Immigrant artist Masetto and his muse, Zerlina, are living out a poverty-stricken existence in a garret. An evil financier, Mr Wilmore, offers money for a night with Zerlina — the couple accept and …
Well, in fact the consequences are different and even a little magical — think Winter’s Tale meets Picture of Dorian Gray. But the journey to that ending is a mess of forced devices and attention-hungry references. The artist only speaks in titles of paintings, his devious agent only in proverbs. Mr Wilmore pounds in the flagrant Don Giovanni references by singing lyrics from the opera to his Zerlina.
Whatever cleverness is intended, it sits along clunking satire and characterisation: the agent and financier are idiots, the artist too passive. Still, a decent cast carry on with gusto: Jon Stainsby as the agent is a particularly pleasing presence.
The music improves things. Benjamin’s score makes references, and with more impunity. Its chief influence is baroque — a harpsichord grinding away under a string quartet while dissonant woodwinds remind us it’s pastiche. Accordingly, the vocal lines average out into quasi-recitative. But there are purple patches: a Passion-like lament with cello obbligato sticks out. A choral development of Gregorian chant thrills. Not all bad then.