Scottish Opera’s Marx in London! in Glasgow is more reminiscent of a Marx Brothers farce

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Jonathan Dove and Charles Hart, Marx in London!: Soloists, the Chorus of Marx in London and the Orchestra of Scottish Opera / David Parry (conductor).Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 15.2.2024. (GT)

Roland Wood (Karl Marx ) © James Glossop

Music – Jonathan Dove
Libretto – Charles Hart
Director – Stephen Barlow
Designer – Yannis Thavoris
Lighting – Rory Beaton
Video – PJ McEvoy
Choreographer – Kally Lloyd-Jones
Fight director – Raymond Short

Karl Marx – Roland Wood
Jenny Marx – Orla Boylan
Eleanor ‘Tussi’ Marx – Rebecca Bottone
Freddy – William Morgan
Helene Demuth – Lucy Schaufer
Friedrich Engels – Alasdair Elliot
A Spy – Jamie MacDougall
A Pawnbroker – John Molloy
Melanzane – Paul Hopwood
Franz – Chuma Sijeqa
Chief Inspector – Francis Church
Sergeant – Douglas Naime
Foreman – Phil Gault

Marx in London! was first heard at the Stadttheater Bonn in 2018 in a staging by Jürgen R. Weber in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth. Rather than a celebration of the author of Das Kapital, this new opera 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, and more attention is given to his carbuncles, the apparent coveting of the maidservant and his drinking – it is more his insincerity and selfishness that comes across in this portrayal. Of course, there have been many operas depicting historical figures, and most are more fiction than fact; one can think of John Adams’s Nixon in China, Schnittke’s The Idiot, Philip Glass’s Kepler, and The Perfect American. We know that the Marx family lived in poverty in London yet here 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. So, one of the factors absent in the opera 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, making her debut here, as his much-suffering wife Jenny: her characterisation was at the centre of the show. 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 Charles Hart’s libretto which was originally for a German-speaking audience and for an undoubtedly quick-witted Glaswegian audience many of the anecdotes still didn’t come off: there is nothing worse when the lines are spoilt by a slow text. The attempts at slapstick were poorly enacted and often seemed naïve which – together with the constant movement across the stage by workers, bailiffs, or police – all distracted one from the narrative.

One of the most moving passages was the duet between 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 heard on the brass when he enters to rescue the Marx family. There were some magical moments in the aria sung by Bottone when her coloratura evinced all the drama of Eleanor ‘Tussi’ meeting with the mysterious piano teacher Freddy, ‘So Mister Teacher’. There was a humorous note when Freddy brought out a pistol and 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 ‘Kapital’ (which contained Marx’s book) falling into the possession 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 adds a certain atmosphere to Stephen Barlow’s direction and most spectacular are Yannis Thavoris’s sets; this all combines to make this a vivid stage work. A conspicuous success was the video presentations by PJ McEvoy of moving depictions of nineteenth-century London.

Rebecca Bottone (‘Tussi’) and William Morgan (Freddy) © James Glossop

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 pawnshop illustrated spectacularly by McEvoy’s visuals. The duet ends with the provocative ‘Bang, bang’ from ‘Tussi’ accompanied by suggestive passages from the bassoon.

At the end of the first act, one of the few political and only choral scenes is ‘Marx’s dream’ when he is slumbering in the British Museum Reading Room, and workers enter and sing ‘Soon, soon’ repeated over flutes and swirling strings, voicing their call for workers to unite. In bringing us to modern times, several placards are displayed calling 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, the much-suffering 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 passersby, and Marx sings, ‘This is my perfect time of day. My perfect ones are here’ against a delightfully harmonious passage from the 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 invention. Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho with its 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 make adaptations to make the opera more concise and appealing. The Orchestra of Scottish Opera were magnificent in 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 conducted the premiere.

Scottish Opera’s Marx in London! continues at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre on February 22 and 24

Gregor Tassie  

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