Dirty factory workers bathed in red light raise their fists defiantly in the air and unfurl banners bearing the word "Arise." Visions of an economic utopia ring out from their mouths, lifted hopefully towards the heavens by fluttering flutes and triumphant brass. And all the while, Karl Marx, that famous father of modern communism, snoozes away at the centre of it all, a book on carbuncles serving as his pillow as he catnaps on his desk at the British Library, dreaming up the scene surrounding him. It's a brief respite for Marx from an otherwise totally topsy-turvy day. And it's also just one of the many glorious and humorous scenes in Jonathan Dove's new opera Marx in London at the Theater Bonn.

Mark Morouse (Marx) and Boyan Di (Pawnbroker) © Thilo Beu
Mark Morouse (Marx) and Boyan Di (Pawnbroker)
© Thilo Beu

Written to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Marx's birth last year, the opera presents 24 hours in the life of the Marx household in 1871. The family's material belongings are carted off for unpaid debts, a gun-toting stranger with a mysterious link to the family appears on their doorstep, and a bravura Italian anarchist bent on revenge is foiled by one well-timed falling chandelier.

Director Jürgen R. Weber conceived the initial story idea, and he found the perfect creative pair in librettist Charles Hart and composer Dove, whose clever lyrics and diverse music respectively bring the comical madness to life. Weber purposefully wanted to avoid focusing on Marx's political ideologies and instead bring the man himself, with all his ironic characteristics and day-to-day tussles, to life onstage. In this, the opera is a resounding success.

Mark Morouse (Marx) and Ceri Williams (Helene) © Thilo Beu
Mark Morouse (Marx) and Ceri Williams (Helene)
© Thilo Beu

The audience meets a husband who has squandered his wife's wealth, lusts after his housekeeper and desires worldly bourgeoisie comforts, despite his aim to liberate the proletariat from the oppressive shackles of capitalism. "Is it so very wrong," Marx muses, "to want a Chinese dinner-gong? To end the evening with a song around the piano? To sip one's claret from a glass blown in Murano?" Hart's lyrics channel Stephen Sondheim with their complex and witty rhymes. And without overdoing it, Hart drops tagline phrases here and there that become jokes by being seamlessly embedded in the madcap action that leaves Marx hapless and helpless. "Workers of the world? Unworthy of the name!" he scolds the workers carting away his furniture after bribing them with alcohol fails.

Marx is a wonderful vehicle for comedic acting, a real chance to rake in laughs by simply bringing out his contradictory self. The statuesque baritone Mark Morouse, complete with a bushy grey beard, looked every inch the part, but delivered something of a “dialled-in” performance. Though he livened up more in the second act, his one-liners hung heavily in the air, with a tirade of insults hurled at his arch-enemy Melanzane sounding more like a weekly grocery list than a wild counterattack spurred by ideological obsession. The contrasting facets of Marx's personality weren't backed by emotion, which left the character blander than he is written.

Johannes Mertes (Engels), Yannick-Muriel Noah (Jenny) and Ceri Williams (Helene) © Thilo Beu
Johannes Mertes (Engels), Yannick-Muriel Noah (Jenny) and Ceri Williams (Helene)
© Thilo Beu

Morouse's diction was superb, but he was consistently hard to hear over the large orchestra, led with driving energy by David Parry. Dove's music was rich in contrast, ranging from repeated minimalist sequences that channel John Adams to swoopy, drunken waltzes in the strings, from bright and hopeful brass heralding a better future to colourful instrumental solos, whether the growl of a contrabassoon or the plaintive yearn of the cor anglais. The duets between Marx and the dandy Friedrich Engels, sung grandiosely by tenor Johannes Mertes, were particularly memorable in their tight harmonies.

As Marx's daughter Tussy, soprano Marie Heeschen brought spot-on intonation to dozens of very high notes and masterfully navigated arpeggios that skipped all around, while still radiating impish rebelliousness. Tenor Jonghoon You stood out as the Italian anarchist Melanzane, delivering a performance sinuous in both singing and hip-swaying. Soprano Yannick-Muriel Noah delivered the evening's most emotionally compelling portrayal. As Karl's wife, Jenny, she sang with complete conviction in both her bitter anger at her husband for dumping this wretched life upon her and her borderline pathetic need for his affection.

<i>Marx in London</i> © Thilo Beu
Marx in London
© Thilo Beu

Visual elements grounded the family soap opera in the misery of the industrial era while avoiding heavy-handedness that could have dampened the comedy. The darkly rusted towering sets featured imposing cogs, gears and tools, which were also overlaid on the costumes. Mobile set pieces kept the action flowing, pulled by silent, broken and greying workers who, at the opera's end, foreshadowed the bloodshed that Marx's philosophies would give rise to.

Too often new operas are premiered, celebrated and then fail to be produced again. I hope this is not the fate of Marx in London as the work deserves many more chances to delight audiences with its humour and music, as well as a chance to have the title role performed with more gusto.

****1