Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn series sees Tim Benjamin’s new opera Madame X take to the stage for a performance wracked with power, money and obsession. Inspired by Jacobean drama with overtones of vengeance, possession and artistic freedom, this is a traditionally-sung piece with a very modern relevance.
A moving violin solo opens the first act, with the cast from the outset offering a charming rapport and clear characterisation. Beautiful voices abound across the board, with a stand-out performance from stunning soprano Laura Sheerin as Zerlina, muse and lover of artist Masetto (Tom Morss). The artist hosts a party to sell his work, where a wealthy patron takes a shine to his lover and a noble lady commissions a painting, with dire consequences. As the plot thickens, Masetto’s agent Botney (the fantastic baritone Jon Stainsby) reveals his corruption, and the second act brings a deadly deed that changes the game.
Full of cleverly employed clichés, this opera tackles the very relevant topics of working for money or love, possession of art and of others and the superficiality of beautiful things. Emotively sung, intelligently presented in English and with an undoubtedly talented ensemble, it’s just a fraction too long and some of the language is lost in the angle of the stage. There is subtle humour, though, and desperation is depicted in the rising pitch of the voices as themes such as madness, revenge and powerlessness are strewn across the stage.
Empty frames hang over the stage ominously, reflecting the emptiness of venality – a satirical gaze upon the perpetual pennilessness of the artist. Exquisite when in chorus, inherently melancholy and ultimately soul-bearing, Madame X poses infinitely more questions than it answers.