Review: Searching for the filth at Grimeborn: Madame X, Arcola Theatre

With a name that pokes unsubtle fun at one of the UK’s most elite opera festivals, Grimeborn is the Arcola Theatre‘s annual opera festival that has quickly grown a reputation for showcasing fresh adaptations of traditional operas and rarely seen operatic works and providing a receptive platform for new composers, musicians and artists.

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I have had plenty of grime this year so far and have wallowed, like a pig in muck, coating myself in some brilliant modern opera, from Benjamin Britten’s sea-lashed epic Peter Grimes to the five-hour odyssey of shit, spit and silver semen that was Matthew Barney’s bonkers and beautiful River of Fundament (and believe me, when you’ve seen a man reborn through the feces-smeared anus of a decomposing cow you can assume that you’ve become fairly immune to good old fashioned filth). So I went to Grimeborn in Dalston to see Tim Benjamin’s Madame X, hoping for another lashing of brutally brilliant modern opera, with a name like that, what more could you expect?

Inspired by Handel’s operas and Jacobean tragedies, but also littered with references spanning everything from echoes of La Traviata to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and with a score that takes you from lyric Italian operetta to Baroque chamber music with a spot of hugely effective off stage Gregorian-esque chant for good measure, Madame X is a postmodern critique of how consumerism and consumption destroys art.

It’s root, however, comes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, stealing the identity of the opera’s lovers, the artist Masetto and his fiancée and muse Zerlina, and transplanting them in his new world as immigrants, starving and near-desperate and at the mercy of their unscrupulous agent Botney. Masetto, the next big name of his generation, is forced to open his studio to a braying mob of would-be art appreciators, the aristocratic Lady Brannoch, who wants Masetto to immortalise her on canvas, and the lecherous financier Mr Wilmore (Marc Callahan).

The dastardly Wilmore – whose appearance practically screams one dimensional baddie, from his outfit of leather strangler gloves and swinging, silver-topped cane to his repertoire of threatening bass notes – takes a fancy to Zerlina and, when he can’t woo her, turns her into his own Coy Mistress by buying all of Masetto’s paintings of her. Later, he returns to offer the struggling couple an Indecent Proposal of money for an evening with Zelina, which she accepts, only to be left mutilated and murdered in the river in Act II.

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Tom Morss and Laura Sheerin sing prettily enough as Masetto and Zerlina and Morss plays Masetto’s grief with enough restraint to keep it the right side of schmaltz but both are restricted by the plot line and the libretto, which constricts Masetto into communicating solely in the titles of paintings and sends Zerlina to a conveniently sticky end.

When Zerlina’s body is discovered offstage it feels more like a plot contrivance to allow Masetto to become a more three-dimensional character than a driving force in the story line. It also seems monumentally unfair to reduce Zelina to a pliant victim and silently bump her off when she’s previously shown enough knowing sarcasm and moxy to easily avoid the advances of the amorous financier and outwit the squawking party goers.

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Jon Stainsby’s Botney (he’s the one sporting the unmistakable sign of the cad – red trousers) was one of the highlights of the performance and, despite being similarly restricted and speaking mainly in proverbs, he thrust through the melodrama, spewing cliches like a macabre agony aunt. The other was Taylor Wilson’s statuesque Lady Brannoch (if you aren’t pronouncing that like you’re clearing your throat then you aren’t doing it right), the wealthy Dowager who paid Masetto to create a flattering portrait and who had low notes that throbbed with her aching but intangible desire for youth and beauty.

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The stripped back staging probably hinted at the metaphor of baseless, empty consumer culture and worked well in the Arcola’s claustrophobically intimate setting. But I was left wanting more from this primitive and almost schoolish stage, which felt, with its jumble of blank canvasses and empty frames, not strong enough to anchor the opera’s sea of allusions and emotional histrionics.

It’s a clever concept with brief flashes of brilliance – the harpy chorus, for example, acting as figurative culture vultures, circling Masetto on his opening night and demanding: “Is it modern? I don’t like modern / Are you famous in your own country? / Is it expensive? How much is it worth?”

The singing is uniformly good, as was the score and conductor Antony Brannick’s small ensemble orchestra, it’s just a shame that it’s hampered by a sometimes mawkish libretto. Take your chances with Madame X, it’s at the RNCM Opera Theatre, MANCHESTER before it goes on tour.

Tickets are £15 (£12 concessions), contact the box office on 020-7503 1646 or visit the Arcola theatre website.

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