25 August (Madame X) and 5 September (Façade/Eight Songs for a Mad King) 2014 – Grimeborn Festival 2014


Grimeborn is an annual festival of opera and music drama held at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, north London that juxtaposes newly-written works with novel interpretations and productions of more-established works in the canon.


This year’s line-up included Massenet’s Werther and Menotti’s The Medium; complementing them were modern works that treated of, variously, a 1800 assassination attempt on Napoleon Bonaparte, Mussolini’s oppression of homosexuals in Fascist Italy, and the perception of time. However, instead of taking in Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, I chose to attend two productions whose music made reference to and drew on that of the Baroque – the past experienced through modern eyes and ears, which has always been a key part of Grimeborn’s make-up.


One could almost say that Tim Benjamin’s role in the genesis of Madame X (*, 1 star) was akin to that of a 18th-century theatre impresario – not content with co-writing the libretto and setting it to music, he also acted as stage director in this examination of how art and those who produce it have always been affected by such corrupting influences as love, money, and power. His stated aim was to answer not the question, ‘What is art?’, but rather, ‘What is art for?’


Thus we witness the sordid life of the immigrant painter Masetto and his muse Zerlina as they are variously fleeced out of their earnings by the bullying Botney, patronised (in both senses of the word) by nameless art cognoscenti, and fought over by the arch Lady Brannoch (aiming for Masetto’s talent in commissioning a portrait) and the disturbing Mr Wilmore (who lusts after Zerlina). The two suitors do get what they want, but after the manner of a Jacobean revenge tragedy – another important ingredient in the construction of Madame X – all meet a gruesome end.


Benjamin and his co-librettist (and production dramaturg) Anthony Peter go to great lengths to lay out their view of Madame X and the many layers of meaning and symbolism they have created within it; which is good, because without their essays in the programme I suspect that very little of their intentions would have been made clear from the performance alone.


The libretto and the music sit far from easily with each other. Each is busy and full of clever allusions and self-reference, demanding much of a listener – too much, if you ask me. True, the nature of art is no easy question to answer, especially when tackled in allegorical form; but the startling directness of the plot and its inexorable march towards annihilation would have been much better served by more attention to each character’s development in the context of the whole story, rather than trying to paint each of them as vividly as possible at any one point.


Benjamin cites the importance of the Baroque theory of Affekt – which holds that certain defined musical motifs can be used to create particular moods or states of mind in a listener – to his music for Madame X, and at times his use of pastiche does jolt the listener into realising that trouble is bubbling away under the surface. But employing such musical reference points to illuminate the intentions (hidden or otherwise) of the characters, or to undermine what appears to be the reality of circumstances, only works if it is at all clear from the rest of the score what those intentions or circumstances are. Benjamin’s score is almost too clever on this account, with nods to Britten, Brahms, Dowland, and Mahler – among others – fighting to be heard (both figuratively and literally – see the paragraph at the end regarding the performance space) and thus negating their efficacy.


The production seldom helps to clarify the musical confusion, and there is little sense of overall direction, only individual characters the manner of whose interactions range from the stiltedly improbable to the frankly unbelievable. Whereas the written descriptions of the characters provide adequate starting-points on which convincing characters could have been built, the ways in which they are actually fleshed out are deeply dissatisfying.


We can all pity the poor, wretched artistic talent that is Masetto – but having him speak almost entirely in the names of paintings (some famous, many not) means that we get little sense of the madness into which he is plunged apart. The closeness and contentedness of his relationship with Zerlina seems a constant through the opera, until she decides to accept Wilmore’s offer – no doubt in a deliberate nod to her namesake’s vacillation in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but done here so suddenly and with little display of any psychological wavering.


The idea to have Botney the art dealer talk in proverbs, sayings and platitudes in order that he represent the superficial, temporal world of commerce and corruption has some merit, but the idea is simply taken too far by having him do this for the entirety of the opera – by the end the character loses even the slight interest he initially possessed by being so blatant in his swindling of Masetto and Zerlina, and becomes an irritating bore.


It’s a shame, as there are several fine performances. Laura Sheerin as Zerlina imbues the fairly limited and thankless role with a nobility that (until her capitulation to Wilmore) reflects the character’s steely determination to achieve a better life for her and Masetto; although – until the final scene of the opera – given few moments to shine vocally, hers is a rich, brilliant voice suitable for a much larger space than the Arcola. Taylor Wilson’s Lady Brannoch was the most clearly defined character of the whole cast – follow the seemingly obvious allusion to Wilde’s Lady Bracknell and you’ll grasp a lot of Lady Brannoch’s personality – and her singing and acting complemented each other to perfection, the character’s dim-witted aristocratic haughtiness requiring exactly the extravagant, over-the-top performance Wilson provided.


Of the men, Jon Stainsby as Botney had perhaps the most demanding part, being required to memorise strings of aphorisms set to often unexpectedly angular melodies, and this he carried off with aplomb. Whether roguishly striding across the set as if he was to thank for every brushstroke of Masetto’s talent, or unctuously buttering up Lady Brannoch and Wilmore, Stainsby’s warmly sung performance was always full of wit and sparkle.


Short in stature and plangently high in tessitura, Tom Morss’s Masetto looked and sounded the part, surrounded and put upon by the looming figures of Lady Brannoch, Wilmore, and Botney; but while he tackled some fiendishly high vocal lines with effortless skill, he struggled to be heard against louder orchestral passages, which didn’t help the cause of his intelligibility. Marc Callahan’s performance as Wilmore was constrained and unfocused, having little to rise to – although the same should certainly not be said of his singing, which carried much more of the character’s menace and barely-hidden aggression than was allowed out in his acting.


The orchestral contribution was underwhelming at worst, pleasant at best; like the acting, it lacked strong direction, and conductor Antony Brannick often seemed to be reacting to the singers rather than supporting and guiding them through the score. All in all, I found Madame X hugely disappointing – not because, at the end, I was left bored and unenthused by what had taken place, but because I was left doubting that the performers’ efforts had done anything to answer the supposedly key question of ‘What is art for?’


Peter Maxwell Davies’ take on the Baroque in his 1969 work Eight Songs for a Mad King springs from the plight of King George III and his descent into madness towards the end of his reign; it was joined to Walton’s Façade for Grimeborn’s double-bill (****, 4 stars). The Eight Songs are a tour de force for the male voice, and in fact are – in a sense – unperformable, as they were written to fit and show off the incredible talents of the South African singer Roy Hart, whose arsenal of vocal effects is crystallised in the score as we have it today.


Like Madame X, the Eight Songs also seem to be asking a question; this time, ‘What is it like to be mad?’ Of course, as Joseph Heller memorably elucidated in Catch-22, madness is a slippery thing; here, the conflict at the heart of the whole work is that mad King George is not mad – not in his own mind, anyway. It was this confusion, this inner turmoil that was most captivating about Samuel Pantcheff’s performance: we never forget that this king shouts at his guards but is thrown into a flutter by a caged bird, that he thanks the river Thames for being the life-blood of his people but also talks to his ‘land of sheep and cabbages’.


The last time I saw these songs performed, the baritone Leigh Melrose gave a performance that was violently unhinged, his wide-eyed, grinning king quite clearly already over the edge of the precipice of sanity; Pantcheff’s interpretation, equally valid, is more that of a man feeling his grip on mental well-being beginning to loosen, and trying to cling on for dear life.


If Pantcheff didn’t quite stretch to every vocal subtlety prescribed in the score – some of which have to be seen for their difficulty to believed – this fitted well with the slightly more subdued nature of his king, soi-disant nervous. And when Pantcheff did ‘save up’ his madness for the darkest moment of the piece – when the king screams that the queen is not his real wife – it was truly terrifying.


The Eight Songs and Façade were unified by director Ella Marchment’s decision to envisage them as hospital-ward entertainments in 1919 for patients suffering from shell-shock. Thus, as the audience filed in at the start of the evening, the members of the orchestra were already on stage in khakis, adopting the positions and tics of afflicted servicemen, before – and after letting this scene-setting go on far too long – being marshalled into performance positions by the ward nurse. The action was complemented by a video projection above the stage, which overlaid photos alluding to the various stories in Façade with flashes of war photos or violently drawn scribbles.


(This concept had much less impact on the Eight Songs, whose staging summoned up a feather-filled fantasy land, with the king lounging in and around a porcelain bathtub (pictured above) and the instrumentalists costumed as birds – although there were poignant moments of video footage, subtly suggesting that the king was in fact Private Samuel Pantcheff, his delusions brought on by the war.)


The success of any performance of Façade rests on the delivery of Edith Sitwell’s wondrous and fizzing poems, and in that respect this performance was, sadly, a disaster. The decision had been made, presumably for balance reasons, to give the two reciters – soprano Charmian Bedford and baritone Danny Standing – radio microphones, in order that they not be swamped by the (on-stage) orchestra. However, from the very start it was extremely difficult to make out Standing’s words, given his much lower register than Bedford’s (which got me thinking about whether singers or actors would be more suitable for these roles – an undecided question, when we look at the work’s performance history); and the problem was only compounded when his microphone stopped working after about five minutes – whether this was down to the sound engineer trying to improve things, or whether it was an unexpected failure, I don’t know. It did actually spur him to work even harder to communicate the texts, for which he’s much to be commended.


The horrendous balance problems aside, I was bowled over by all other aspects of this Façade. The clownish antics of the two reciters completely appropriate for Marchment’s World War I concept, and they both moved with skill and closely co-ordinated grace. Bedford was sparkling in her delivery, and vivacious in her acting; Standing matched her in the latter, throwing himself into the fun and games wholeheartedly.


The orchestral playing through both works was first-class. Conductor Oliver Zeffman coaxed from his players the two very different sound-worlds of Walton and Maxwell Davies – one brash and tuneful, the other unforgivingly harsh and dissonant – but had clearly realised that both scores are driven by the force of their rhythms, rather than by melody. This, in the Eight Songs, is where the link with the Baroque most obviously lies – apart from the quotations from Messiah, the pseudo-dance sections  and the mock-heroic aria in praise of Dr Heberden.


These were my first visits to the new Arcola Theatre since its 2011 move from elsewhere in Dalston, and I can’t say that the virtues of the new space outweigh its many problems for the audience – where live music is involved, at least. There doesn’t seem to be an ideal place for an orchestra: in Madame X they were under the audience gallery, playing in the faces of the singers; in Façade/Eight Songs they were on stage, playing in the faces of the audience – deafening, in both set-ups. It’s clearly not practical to have any orchestra completely separate from the stage, given the difficulties of establishing sight-lines in the space, but it does lead to significant balance problems.


Nothing against the Arcola theatre, of course, but it does add another challenge to the participants in future Grimeborn performances. We’ll just have to see how they fare next year.


Adrian Horsewood