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A friend sent me this review-it it came to NYC I'd give it a try! Regards, Len
A day in the family life of Karl Marx might seem the unlikeliest of subjects for an opera, let alone a comic one, but Jonathan Dove and his librettist, Charles Hart, have come up with an entertaining yarn in their new opera, Marx in London, which had its world premiere earlier this month at the municipal theatre in Bonn.
The political thinker spent his student years in the birthplace of Beethoven, which served as the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1949 to 1990, until, ironically perhaps, the fall of communism restored that status to Berlin. So Bonn clearly had to celebrate the bicentenary of one of Germany’s intellectual giants — born in Trier on May 5, 1818 — even if the commissioning of this “comedy” might seem a back-handed compliment to Marx’s devoted admirers.
When I talked to Dove last month, he revealed that one of his inspirations for this deft domestic snapshot of Marx’s exile in London was Verdi’s Falstaff. Like Falstaff, Marx in London is an opera of ensembles and archetypes that has a towering, if obviously flawed, figure at its centre, with whom we begin to empathise as he comes through life’s scrapes. He is forever short of money, reliant on benefactors (in London, it was mainly his wealthy “guardian angel”, Friedrich Engels) and a burden on the women in his life: his wife, the fallen-on-hard-times aristocrat Jenny; his daughter, Eleonore, known as Tussy; and his housekeeper, Helene Demuth, with whom he had an illegitimate son, Freddy, whom Engels obligingly acknowledged as his own.
From this convoluted stew, Dove and Hart have extracted intriguing ingredients: not only Falstaffian foibles but the comic mechanics of Mozart’s “folle journée”, The Marriage of Figaro, come into play when Helene is revealed to be Freddy’s mother. But it shouldn’t be surprising that the composer of Flight and Pinocchio, and the arranger of classic operas, should be drawn to examples from the past and encourages his audience to make such connections.
The Bonn staging, directed by Jürgen R Weber in a striking “mechanical” train set by Hank Irwin Kittel that evokes both the late-Victorian domestic ambience of the Marx home and the industrial background of his political thinking, takes a bit of time to achieve locomotion. The opening scenes — depicting the disappearance of the furniture and Tussy’s piano — aren’t quite as deliriously funny as I was expecting, and Marx’s groans from the discomfort of his carbuncles as he does his research in the British Library are painful rather than amusing.
Things improve when he falls asleep over his books, dreaming of the proletariat on the rise — “Awake, Marx!” — and Dove writes an uplifting chorus of almost Wagnerian resonance. The aftermath of his attempt to pawn his wife’s family silver, when the pawnbroker suspects him of theft and reports him to the police, has an almost madcap, Marx Brothers burlesque as he is pursued through the streets of London.
The love interest is all the more piquant because we, the audience, are in on Helene’s knowledge that Tussy and Freddy are half-siblings. At the “happy” end, when Engels the Heldentenor comes to Marx’s financial rescue in optimistic C major, the workers turn menacingly on Marx, brandishing hammer and sickle as “ironic” laurels, but the outcome of his children’s “love match” remains unclear.
Dove’s score is easy on the ear, but rises climactically in the big ensembles for the principals and the rousing choruses. Whether the opera will establish itself as another Flight remains to be seen. The opening scenes could be tightened up if Dove has time before Scottish Opera gives the UK premiere in a couple of seasons’ time, but, as always, he conjured up beguiling vocal and orchestral sounds, the latter bejewelled with a sprinkling of celesta “fairy dust”.
If Bonn’s Beethoven Orchestra, under the Dove devotee David Parry, were occasionally taxed by the brass writing, the performance was an admirable demonstration of the ensemble values of a middle-ranking German opera house. In the title role, the American baritone Mark Morouse cut a towering figure with his powerful voice, more a Hans Sachs, perhaps, than a Falstaff, while Yannick-Muriel Noah lavished a substantial lyric soprano on the anxieties of the long-suffering Jenny.
Ceri Williams was perfectly cast as the housekeeper/bit on the side, with a maternal, Erda-like contralto. Marie Heeschen’s Tussy twittered in the stratosphere with coloratura showpieces — one could think of several British candidates for this prima donna role — while the two contrasting tenors, Christian Georg (Freddy) and Johannes Mertes (Engels), brought Mozartian and Wagnerian lyricism to their parts.
Marx in London is, perhaps surprisingly, an opera of archetypes, but this is what Dove does well. If it occasionally comes across more as through-composed musical than music drama, it’s an effective piece of musical theatre: think a very English Les Mis with good tunes and wittier jokes.
https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/ ... eater-bonn
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