Scottish Opera 2023-24 Review: Marx in London

A Labored Production That Fails to Capture The Comedy of Dove & Hart’s Work

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: James Glossop)

Any forward-looking opera company surely must play its part in keeping the artform alive. While there must be a place for the staple repertoire, an over-reliance on the likes of Puccini, Verdi, and Mozart not only contains an element of the parasitic but also displays a mentality of unadventurous programming that will ultimately sap the energy from a company. Scottish Opera’s decision to stage Jonathan Dove’s latest opera, “Marx in London,” can, therefore, only be applauded. Unfortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, the production turned out to be something of a damp squib.

Written to a libretto by Charles Hart, one would have expected something more substantial from the authors’ collaboration. Both Dove and Hart are experienced and successful in their fields and boast a string of successes. Dove’s opera “Flight,” for example, has rarely been off the stage since its premiere in 1998.

A Staging That Fails to Ignite

The narrative for “Marx in London” is loosely based around the real-life events of Karl Marx’s time spent in London, in which he faced financial hardship and had to rely on handouts from Friedrich Engels while enjoying his time downing a few beers in the local taverns and fathering an illegitimate child to his housemaid. Written as a comedy, it plays up Marx’s self-created problems for a romp through 19th century London, in which Marx spent most of the time chasing or being chased across the city, trying to sell or recover the family silver in order to ward off the wrath of his wife, Jenny. Meanwhile, his daughter, Eleanor, has fallen in love with Freddy, whom she believes to be a spy but who is, in fact, Marx’s illegitimate son and her half-brother.

The degree to which Hart’s libretto allows for the comedic elements to surface is difficult to know for certain. For sure, there are a number of humorous exchanges between the characters and the scenes have been constructed with both eyes firmly set on the possibilities for comedy. However, while the audience indulged itself in a little light laughter and the occasional knowing smirk, the effect was generally underwhelming. It felt as if the narrative was moving forward in the form of a series of weak comedy sketches. There was nothing in the way of outright belly laughter, there was no rolling in the aisles, and at the final curtain call, the applause was polite rather than enthusiastic.

The director, Stephen Barlow, must take at least part of the responsibility for the lackluster presentation. His handling of the work’s comedic potential was often hackneyed and too obvious to be truly funny. We watched as Marx ran back and forth across the stage, chasing a man he believed to have stolen his case containing the silver he tried to pawn, or a door suddenly opening only to bang Freddy on the head, and so on. It was unimaginative slapstick. It was dull, bordering on tedious.

The sets by Yannis Thavoris were designed to give the appearance of a 19th century theatre, complete with footlights. The scenery was given a Victorian look, in line with the period. It was colorful and practical and successfully captured the era, while the overall design and the props allowed the space for the possibility of slapstick. Marx was able to crawl around the floor and hide behind the furniture to avoid his angry wife and thereby managed to elicit a few chuckles. Traditional Victorian costumes, occasionally exaggerated for comedic effect, added to the colorful staging. Friedrich Engels cut an amusing figure by arriving onstage riding a penny farthing wearing goggles with a pair of wings on his back, while the Italian anarchist Melanzane played upon his name by wearing a purple suit.

There were, of course, some successful episodes that managed to capture the imagination. When Eleanor and Freddy jumped on the cart carrying Marx’s furniture, it took off into the skies above London. It was an imaginative and exceptionally well-staged scene in which a video, designed by P.J. McEvoy, was projected onto a white backdrop to create the effect of the vehicle moving across the London skyline. The scene in the pub was also nicely crafted to create a crowded bar full of energy and believable characters. However, even this was partially undermined by having Marx outline his political and philosophical credo in a serious manner, which was totally at odds with the lighthearted silliness that otherwise prevailed.

Overall, however, the impression created was a cross between 19th century music hall, amateur dramatics, and Gilbert and Sullivan, which, to a certain degree, was the desired outcome.

A Pleasing, Rather than a Brilliant, Score

Dove’s music used an interesting orchestral palette with plenty of percussion and brass. The numbers were in standard form—arias and ensemble pieces—which possessed comfortable melodies that lay easily on the ear, and although a couple of duets made a good impression, few remained in the memory. The recitatives were fluid and rattled along, providing the text with energy and momentum. Dove made significant use of musical quotations, such as Bernard Herrmann’s famous strings from Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” which he associated with Marx’s wife, and extensively from John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” no doubt due to its communist associations. The musical highpoint of the work came towards the end of Act One, in which Marx, having fallen asleep in the British Museum, dreams of the 1848 revolutions that had broken out across Europe. The workers of the world, with plenty of present-day associations, crowded the stage, waving placards and demanding better pay and conditions while delivering a chorus with a strong, rousing melody, reminiscent of the prisoners’ chorus from “Fidelio.”

The Orchestra of Scottish Opera, under the direction of David Parry, produced a balanced reading that kept up a lively pace.

A Lively, Energetic Cast Unable to Overcome the Production’s Shortcomings

The cast engaged enthusiastically and energetically with their roles, although, try as they might, the comedy just did not take wing. Nevertheless, they created a strong group of characters, and their singing was, on the whole, of high quality.

Looking every inch the part with his bushy beard, baritone Roland Wood put in a strong, convincing performance as Karl Marx. He has a secure, firm voice that moves easily with an attractive timbre that he used to characterize his role as a philosopher-cum-naughty child. He did his best in trying to bring to life the comedy that surrounded him, in which he complained about the carbuncles on his backside, mocked his own writings, and tried to escape from his wife, among other nonsense. He also possessed the necessary gravitas when required to position himself in a more serious manner, notwithstanding that such instances did not slip neatly into the piece as a whole.

Soprano Orla Boylan entered in a huge dress that dominated the stage, which she complemented with a formidable portrait of Marx’s wife, Jenny. At one point, she even took on a Brünnhilde-like persona, in which she allowed her voice to ring out strongly across the orchestra, after which it lost a little of its focus and gloss. Up to that point, however, she was singing with an appealing sense of freedom and expressivity, in which she convincingly embraced the role of the put-upon yet combative wife.

Soprano Rebecca Bottone genuinely appeared to be having fun as Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, and took every opportunity to ham up the role. Facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice were all perfectly crafted to maximize the comedic effect. She possesses an attractive, versatile voice with a bright, sparkling coloratura, which she made full use of in moulding it to fit the comedy. She was fun-loving, provocative, and flirtatious, with plenty of energy that brought her character successfully to life.

Marx’s illegitimate son, Freddy, was given a bright and sympathetic reading by tenor William Morgan. He was positive and easy-going but socially out of his depth and met his setbacks as best as he could. His relationship with his half-sister, Eleanor, was playful and suitably amorous, at least before he realized that he was her half-brother. All of which he successfully captured with a light, clear, and lyrically pleasing presentation.

Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer gave an excellent performance as the housemaid, Helene Demuth. Rolling with the part, she related with ease to the various characters with whom she had more in common than one might initially suppose. She put up cheerfully with Marx’s lewd behavior without giving into him or aggressively rejecting him. She sympathized with his wife over Marx’s behavior and tried to hide the truth about Freddy’s parentage, but ultimately accepted it all with good humor. She was good-natured throughout and made it easy to sympathize with her. The duet “Another little drink,” which she sung with Jenny, was wonderfully rendered and captured the intimacy that existed between the two women.

Tenor Alasdair Elliott’s larger-than-life Friedrich Engels was one of the more amusing characters, and not just because of his eccentric entrance. Tenor Jamie MacDougall produced a solid performance in the role of the Spy. John Molloy made a strong impression with his resonant, warm-colored bass as the Pawnbroker. His clearly defined acting and clear, expressive singing enabled him to bring his character successfully to life. Tenor Paul Hopwood in the role of the brilliant orator, Melanzane, convincingly sounded quite unpleasant as he awkwardly extended his words to create the impression of his overrated speaking skills.

Despite the quality of the cast and Dove’s score, “Marx in London” did not convince. Certainly, part of the problem stemmed from the director’s decision to stage it, at least in part, in the form of a 19th century piece of music hall theatre with an emphasis on slapstick, which for the most part lacked imagination. However, the libretto also failed to fully convince. As Act Two wore on and the loose ends were tidied up, it came to a number of false endings, so rather than reaching a satisfying conclusion, it stuttered along in a stop-start fashion before finally coming to a halt. It all felt too long-winded and would benefit from a few cuts.

It is possible that another production with a slightly different take by the director might prove to be more successful.


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