Review: Marx in London6:11, 23rd January 2019
Jonathan Dove, Theater Bonn
When Jürgen Weber, the enterprising director at Theater Bonn, first proposed the idea of an opera about Karl Marx – one-time student at Bonn University – to British composer Jonathan Dove, the subject must have seemed unlikely operatic fodder. But by focusing on the philosopher’s tumultuous relationships rather than the nitty gritty of his economic vision, Dove, Weber and librettist Charles Hart draw out plenty of pathos in new work Marx in London, which premiered on 9 December in Germany, marking 200 years since Marx’s birth.
As the title implies, the action is set in England, where Marx resided in exile. The narrative is told through a single day in Marx’s life in 1871 (14 August). The socialist-in-waiting isn’t at his best: he’s got writer’s block and needs to finish Das Kapital – his inability to write is not helped by the fact he’s got the hots for the hired help, the bailiffs are in, and his wife’s noticed that he’s pawned the silverware. Oh, and his daughter suspects – accurately, as it turns out – that they are being spied upon.
Dove (Adventures of Pinocchio; The Enchanted Pig) has written a well-paced, lively and engaging score. There are plenty of frothy melodies to complement the comedy on stage, such as the napkin ring leitmotiv played by celeste, which successfully parodies both the use of that instrument for mystical happenings and the symbol of a ‘ring’. Marx in London has been conceived as a comic opera (the folle journée clearly derivative of The Marriage of Figaro), but there were not many ripples of appreciative laughter during this particular performance. This may have partly been down to the diction of the lead roles; although the opera was sung in English, ironically, as a native English speaker, I needed to use the German surtitles.
American baritone Mark Morouse underwhelmed as Marx; his duet with housekeeper Helene (Ceri Williams) being a notable exception. Marx’s daughter Tussi (Marie Heeschen) had an exciting and demanding vocal part, which Dove had written with her in mind, knowing she could handle the top Fs – Heeschen didn’t disappoint, dispatching her solos with measured abandon, and delighting during her duet with Freddy (Christian Georg).
The set saw the spy (tenor David Fischer) suspended from the ceiling in a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-style flying machine, complete with typewriter. The sound of his reportage was neatly reflected in the score, and added a layer of essential British eccentricity. Back on terra firma, the scenery was more disappointing, relying on overly large, dark staircases and buildings that were dragged around manually on stage.
This otherwise excellent work is to be shared with Scottish Opera (date to be confirmed); with some minor tweaks it could thrive.
At Theater Bonn until 14 February