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Marx in London!

Mar 28, 2024

Marx in London

Scottish Opera Glasgow – Jonathan Dove: Marx in London!

This opera was first heard at the Stadttheater Bonn in 2018 in a staging by Jürgen R. Weber in commemoration of Marx’s 200th anniversary. Weber’s production is a satirical account of one day from Marx’s life in exile in the English capital in 1871. Marx is a tragi-comic character: more attention is given to his carbuncles, the apparent coveting of the maidservant and his drinking – it is more his insincerity and selfishness that come across in this portrayal. The Marx family lived in poverty in London, yet in this opera are well-dressed as if from a merchant or aristocratic family. Marx earned little during his exile in London between 1849 and his death in 1883, and the family survived on loans or gifts from friends and relatives – at one time, the family slept in one bedroom, and their frequent visits were to the pawnbrokers – one of the factors absent is the poverty of the Marx family.

Among the vocal highlights was the Karl Marx of Roland Wood, who possesses a fine-voiced baritone, together with the attractive mezzo soprano of Orla Boyan, as his much-suffering wife Jenny (making her debut here) – her characterisation was at the centre of the opera. However, the finest singing of the evening was Marx’s daughter Eleanor ‘Tussi’, whose beautiful coloratura and sensitive acting by Rebecca Bottone were major contributions to the show’s success.

The problem is the libretto, which was originally for a German-speaking audience – for the quick-witted Glaswegians the anecdotes didn’t come off. The attempts at slapstick were poorly enacted – together with the constant movement across the stage by workers, bailiffs, or policemen – all distracting one from the narrative.

One of the few successful passages was the duet between Marx’s wife Jenny and the housekeeper Helene, when drinking gin – ‘Another little drink’ heard against a graceful waltz. It was perhaps the most beautiful passage in the opera and contrasted with the loud leitmotif of Engels on the brass when he enters to rescue the Marx family. There were some magical moments in the aria by the coloratura of Bottone, evincing all the drama of Marx’s daughter Eleanor, ‘Tussi’ meeting with the mysterious piano teacher Freddy, ‘So Mister Teacher’. There was a humorous note when Freddy brought out a pistol and with no little innuendo in ‘Tussi’ flirting with him ‘So, Master gunsmith’.

At the centre of the plot is the disappearance of the family silver, hidden in a suitcase marked ‘Capital’ and mixed up with another suitcase ‘Das Kapital’, falling into procession of the pawnbroker. In all, while the music is often energetic in its quickly moving scenes – the libretto frequently misses its mark – and the whole opera could have been subjected to the cutting of scenes that went on for too long, the jokes about Marx’s carbuncles, the silly fight scenes, and the delicate matter of Freddy’s parentage. The lighting by Rory Beaton and most spectacular are sets by Yannis Thavoris were excellent making this a vivid stage work, and a conspicuous success was the video presentations by PJ McEvoy of moving depictions of 19th-century London.

There are several finely staged scenes when the family piano, chairs and furniture are loaded onto a cart and ‘Tussi’ and Freddy travel above the City of London (reminding one of the Mary Poppins film when the children fly in a balloon above London) and then come back down to earth at the pawn shop illustrated spectacularly by McEvoy’s visuals. The duet ends with ‘Tussi’s provocative ‘Bang, bang’ accompanied by suggestive passages from the bassoon.

The end of Act One, has one of the few political and only choral scenes is ‘Marx’s dream’ when he is slumbering in the British Museum Reading Room: workers enter and sing ‘Soon, soon’, repeated over flutes and swirling strings, voicing their call for workers to unite. In bringing us to modernity, several display placards called for peace, not war, justice, and support for NHS nurses.

Another political scene is at the Red Lion pub in Soho, where Marx gives a speech in a contest for money to finance his cause, yet instead of funding the socialist movement, he gives his winnings to the workers for beer and wine while he drinks cognac with Engels. In contrast to this scene, his much-suffering wife Jenny is lamenting her loss of four children ‘Now the dark is closing in’. The closing scene is set against the picture of Hampstead Heath as the Marx family enjoys a picnic surrounded by workers and passers-by, and Marx sings, ‘This is my perfect time of day. My perfect ones are here’ against a delightfully harmonious passage from woodwind, harp, and strings that brings the opera to a peaceful close.

Dove’s music hints at Wagner, Prokofiev, and no less, John Adams intertwined throughout in a vibrant score brilliantly orchestrated yet short of genuine original invention. Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho of fiercely strident violins appears as Jenny’s leitmotif, who at one moment attacks her husband with a sword like one of the Valkyries.

There were some moments of slapstick – most notably when Engels enters riding a penny-farthing cycle with angels’ wings on his back accompanied by his leitmotif of forceful brass harmonies. There are silly moments when Freddy repeatedly hits his head against the door, followed by a door opening to reveal Marx hiding from his debtors –  dressed as Groucho Marx. Of course, these scenes should have been funny but fall flat, as did the scene of Marx returning from the pub through the window and trying to hide from Jenny.

Scottish Opera’s Marx in London! is worth seeing – the weak points can be ironed out to make it a worthy opera of vivid and outstanding singing and acting with an inventive staging and quick-moving narrative. Stephen Barlow should undertake adaptations to make the opera more concise and appealing. The Orchestra of Scottish Opera were magnificent, rising to every challenge of Jonathan Dove’s brilliant score, and although they had less to do, the Chorus were magnificent in one of the opera’s highlights, all of which was masterminded by the reliable direction of David Parry, who gave the premiere.

Gregor Tassie   

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