Last month I read Tim Ashley's review of Madame X for The Guardian with great interest. The plot sounded exciting if not a little eccentric and I was intrigued as to how this dark thriller could work as an opera production.
Subsequently, I jumped at the chance of reviewing the production at The Royal Northern College of Music when I received the invite.
I have very limited experience of opera and by no shape or form do I profess to be any sort of buff. But on this occasion I am going to lay my inexperience for all to see and declare my greenness an advantage; Tim Benjamin's work is contemporary, new and possibly a little bit dangerous. This may put the traditional Opera enthusiast in danger of snubbing it before it has begun; I attend without prejudice.
Madame X tells the story of 2 immigrants, Masetto and Zerlina living in London. Masetto is a talented painter of portraits. His work is perpetually inspired by the beautiful Zerlina but despite selling some portraits, their financial situation remains dire. Particularly after Masetto's agent has explained his fee structure!
When Zerlina receives a proposition to spend an evening with Mr Wilmore in return for financial reprieve, she finds herself unable to refuse.
The following day her mutilated body is found in the canal with no clue as to who is responsible for the death. Masetto, in his grief, turns to Abersinthe and forced to continue his work, his portraits take a sordid turn.
I fell in love with Masetto and Zerlina straight from the opening scene such was their innocence and obvious longing to be together. But whilst my love for Zerlina remained strong throughout, my feelings towards Masetto swayed. Although a very talented artist his character is weak and he is very much dependant on his muse to push for their future.Tom Morrs, although a little hard to understand in places, plays the part perfectly. He lolls around the stage with the presence of a lost puppy desperately seeking attention and approval. Despite this the couple have the audience very much on their side.
Laura Sheerin plays the part of Zerlina with beautiful simplicity. Her voice is strong and clear and her poise effortless. She flourishes as the performance progresses, her best undoubtedly coming forth within the final Act.
The Agent continually increases in delightful shamefulness. He speaks in proverbs that you will either love or hate, but either way by the second Act, you will find yourself expectantly searching for them.
The Public, though small, is collectively strong and the self obsessed Lady Brannoch a perfect accompaniment to the forthright Mr Wilmore. All of the characters have vocals of differing strength and yet they come together extremely well.
My only criticism of the story is that Zerlina's agreement to Mr Wilmore's sordid offer is in complete contrast to the depiction of her love for Masetto. Her rash acceptance remains an elephant in the room right until the ending. But this is executed so superbly that all is quickly forgiven.
The strength of the whole performance oddly lies in it's lack of sophistication. The set is simple yet effective. The wardrobe is an obvious interpretation of the individuals status. And the music is played to a continual high standard by a small instrumental ensemble. In summary nothing diverts the audience from the storyline.
The tale is clear, easy to follow and yet littered with humour. Despite being inherently fundamental I suspect that you could watch this play over again and find something new each time.
And so back to my original confession; my experience of opera has been limited historically and I have no text book itinerary of what constitutes an award winning production. But if spending hours glued to the stage in wonder is an important attribute for a production to have, then this has it.
The images, the voices and the outcome continue to whirl around my mind and I find myself in a quandary exploring the possibilities. A little like not wanting to swallow the last drop of a glass of fine, rich red wine, I find myself scared to stop exploring the final act in my mind lest I forget some detail or miss some minutiae.
I have fallen in love several times throughout the last few hours of my life and have experienced a range of emotion. I'm not sure I will ever get over this production, nor do I want to. A few hours of performance, but a whole many more of wonder.
Before I started to write this review I consulted a friend who works in the Arts. I asked her how I would recognise a good work. ''The vocals and the settings should compliment one another'' was her reply, ''and you should feel entranced and moved''.
For me, Tim Benjamin has accomplished all of that, and more. I may not know a great deal about opera but I do know what constitutes a great evening out and I would certainly recommend this.
Sadly this performance of Madame X was the final one of the year following performances in Todmorden, Halifax and London. Tim Benjamin has plans for further performances next year but there have been no confirmed dates yet.