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Madame X (Arcola Theatre)

The Grimeborn Festival presents Tim Benjamin's new opera about art, murder and revenge

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

You can't fault the title of Tim Benjamin's opera: it draws you in with the allure of scarlet women and guilty secrets. Small wonder that ten movies have been made with the same name, although Benjamin's subject matter is entirely his own.

Jon Stainsby (Botney) and Tom Morss (Masetto) in Madame X at the Arcola Theatre

His sound world is a mellow one, characterised by pleasant but unmemorable melodic material with a frosting of dissonance. Music director Antony Brannick and his septet of players give a sensitively atmospheric account of some interesting orchestrations.

Masetto is a painter, Zerlina his lover. (The names but not the characters are taken from Mozart's Don Giovanni, two among many musical and extra-musical allusions that prop up the opera's framework.) Shady Mr Wilmore attends a private view, buys the paintings and makes an indecent proposal to Zerlina. It ends badly, but there's a twist in the tale.

Those allusions are a constant distraction. A spot of Handel here, a rewritten Dowland song there... but The Beggar's Opera it is not. Madame X takes itself far too seriously – a magpie construct of this kind only works where there's irony and a wink to the audience – and there is no obvious dramatic or musical reason for the borrowings. The composer-librettist-director's extensive programme notes anatomise his intentions, but the end product needs to stand on its own terms, and Benjamin's intellectual rationale is not followed through in the live experience.

The libretto, co-authored by Anthony Peter, is a mish-mash. Having an art dealer speak only in hackneyed aphorisms is all very well, but as the platitudes increase he becomes a cliché in his own right with a barely discernible dramatic function. And the verbiage piles up across the three acts, now clumsy ("Come in and drink if you are dry"), now banal ("I'll make a small donation. Something to see you through the next few weeks").

'uncomfortable figures stand like pegs on a solitaire game'

Neither stagecraft nor dramatic energy passes muster as professional theatre. Relationships between characters strike false notes throughout: they behave improbably towards one another, but not in ways that are stylised or disturbing. And I haven't seen this much unhappy lumbering in years as entrances and exits are made with the posturing stiltedness of the ill-at-ease. Nine uncomfortable figures stand in the art gallery like so many pegs on a solitaire game, and when Masetto (Tom Morss) hears some terrible news he reacts generically by folding his arms and squeezing them in anguish.

Barring Jon Stainsby's well projected and delineated account of Botney, the dealer, performances are only acceptable. Morss and Laura Sheerin (Zerlina) have attractive voices, tenor and soprano respectively, but they both need to work on their diction.

Matters are not helped by the inconsistency of Lara Booth's designs. Hers is a jumbled aesthetic in which there is paint on the palette but not on the canvasses and meticulously costumed characters mingle amid ill-assorted junk-shop furniture. The saturnine Mr Wilmore (Marc Callahan) wears black gloves and carries a silver-topped cane – accoutrements that would mark him out as a cad in any era but seem improbable in the present day.

What last week's Werther giveth, Madame X taketh away. The Grimeborn Festival needs to be mindful of quality control in its programming, because many more turkeys like this and memories of superior nights at the Arcola will be quickly undone.