An opera on Karl Marx? A comic opera on Karl Marx? Jonathan Dove has never been afraid to think outside the box, and his new play, premiered at the Bonn Theater, does it again. Marx in London takes place over a single day in 1871. It portrays the financial and sexual entanglements of the middle-class immigrant Marx family in London’s Kentish Town against the backdrop of his political feuds and efforts to get Das Kapital to be finally wrote.

If you expect an opera on dialectical materialism or the theory of labor value, you will be disappointed. Dove’s opera, with a witty libretto by Charles Hart, is a real comedy, although in Jürgen Weber’s production it is not without its underlying political messages. It’s all about lyrical entertainment, and rife with reminders of why, according to a recent poll, Dove is the third most-performed living opera composer after Philip Glass and Jake Heggie. If London theatergoers find some echoes of Richard Bean’s recent play Young Marx, it’s because Dove and Bean started discussing the project before heading off in different directions with him.

Prophetic and mean… Marx in London. Photography: Thilo Beu

Take away the fact that this is a work about a huge historical and intellectual figure and you find an opera house constructed in a very familiar way. It centers on a troubled baritone central character, Marx, who writes about money but is hopeless with, his neglected and born soprano wife Jenny, a mezzo housekeeper Helene, a vibrant coloratura girl Tussi, and a fiery young tenor suitor Freddy. . These are all common opera archetypes. There is even a recognition scene in the second act straight out of The Marriage of Figaro, where the tenor turns out to be the son of the baritone and the mezzo.

Dove’s opera speaks, on a certain level, of a bourgeois family. But this family affair rests on the backs of a working class which, in this production, is always a threatening and oppressed presence – nuances of Wagner’s Nibelungs – and which, at the final curtain, is about to take its revenge. Marx gets a big political scene when he falls asleep at the British Museum and dreams of a chorus of workers getting up. But this is not a socialist-realist or agitprop opera – at one point Marx turns to his collaborator and plaintively asks, “Oh, Engels, when will we win? “

… Marx in London.
A writing rich in challenges… Marx in London. Photography: © Thilo Beu

Dove’s score is brilliant, rhythmically insistent and rhythmic. It sags at times, but there is a lot of rich and stimulating writing for the orchestra under the direction of the excellent David Parry, and the confidently written ensembles, which sometimes have echoes of Glass, are often very good. . Mark Morouse captures the prophetic and petty aspects of the central character very effectively and Jenny Marx receives a distinguished performance from Yannick-Muriel Noah. Dove lavishes some of his most ambitious vocal writings on the Marx’s daughter and is rewarded with a vibrant and flawless performance by the endearing Marie Heeschen. Christian Georg as Freddy, the illegitimate son of Marx, Ceri Williams as his mother and Johannes Mertes as Engels complete a strong group of directors. David Fischer sings the spy from a dizzying and anachronistic flying machine that hovers intermittently above the busy staging. The production will be shared with the Scottish Opera, probably in 2020.

At the Bonn Theater, until February 14.