Review: Madame X

“An intriguing new opera that is definitely worth seeing”

UK Theatre Network, by Carolin Kopplin
26th August, 2014, Arcola Theatre, London

Tim Benjamin presents his new opera Madame X, inspired by Jacobean revenge drama and the Italian opera of Händel, at the Grimeborn Festival. Benjamin takes two characters of Mozart's Don Giovanni and transports them to London. The peasant Masetto is changed into a brilliant portrait artist and his fiancée Zerlina becomes his muse.

The young immigrant couple is hungry and cold. Although Masetto works nonstop, he is unable to make a living because his unscrupulous agent Botney uses every possible ruse to cheat his client out of his earnings. When the rich and powerful attend a vernissage entailing a variety of paintings by Masetto all featuring Zerlina, the ruthless financier Mr Wilmore takes a fancy to Zerlina and purchases the whole collection. Lady Brannoch gives Masetto a commission to paint her. After Botney has shortchanged Masetto again, their situation becomes desperate. Zerlina accompanies Mr Wilmore to his home. The next day she is found dead in the canal. Masetto swears revenge.

Tim Benjamin's opera describes the exploitation of a gifted artist. Masetto is a foreigner, a bit antisocial because he does not understand the British class society and its rules, and defenseless against clever con men like Botney. Masetto is completely focused on his art - his only lyrics are titles of paintings - and on his beloved Zerlina who is so much part of his art that he is unable to paint anybody else. His agent Botney takes 50% commission and adds so many fees and costs that Masetto finds himself owing his agent money instead of receiving his well deserved share. Mr Wilmore represents new money, ruthless with a superiority complex. He discards people as he does money of which he has far too much. Lady Brannoch stands for old money, she despises people like Mr Wilmore, no matter how powerful they are, and uses the artist to cement her status. The Public attending the vernissage bother Masetto with the typial inane questions about his origin, his style, etc. but they are a mere nuisance whereas the other characters are a threat to his existence.

The stage is covered with numerous blank canvases (design by Lara Booth). Masetto and Zerlina are embracing as Botley appears: "Are you ready to sell your paintings?" The entrances of Mr Wilmore and Lady Brannoch are accompanied by a harpsicord which has a sense of foreboding. Lady Brannoch, feeling snubbed by that ignorant artist and his muse, recites her family history whilst Mr Wilmore has his eye on the attractive Zerlina who tries to entertain their guests with a dance from her country accompanied by a tambourine. The guests first jeer at her, then join her. After the guests have left and Botley has stolen all of Masetto's earnings, Lady Brannoch returns to commission a portrait of herself: "We must capture my nobility on canvas." Masetto agrees and Botley quickly cheats him again. Masetto's and Zerlina's situation is now desperate. Mr Wilmore declares that he is taking Zerlina under his protection and drops coins on the floor - Zerlina has to crawl for them before she accompanies him into the night.

Tim Benjamin's score references are manifold - I detected Beethoven, Händel, Brahms and the odd modern influence. The quality of the voices is excellent throughout, accompanied by a small expert orchestra under Musical Director Antony Brannick. I was particularly impressed by the beautiful piece that is sung by the worshippers at the beginning of Act 2. Taylor Wilson as Lady Brannoch and Marc Callahan as the capitalist Mr Wilmore almost steal the show. Marc Callahan exudes cold-blooded charisma as the unscrupulous Wilmore whilst Taylor Wilson is the ideal of an arrogant aristocrat. Jon Stainsby gives a very good performance as the con man Botney. Tom Morss and Laura Sheerin are lovely as the naive young couple but I found Tom Morss's Masetto somewhat lacking in passion. His character might be written this way but it does not really further the suspense even if revenge is a dish that is best served cold.

An intriguing new opera that is definitely worth seeing.

By Carolin Kopplin

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