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A scene from Mansfield Park [Photo by Laurent Compagnon]
30 May 2013

Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park

Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park, with libretto by his regular collaborator Alasdair Middleton, has the remarkable distinction of being the first completed operatic adaptation of any Jane Austen novel to be staged.

Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park

A review by David Chandler

Above: A scene from Mansfield Park [Photo by Laurent Compagnon]


Given the enormous international popularity of Austen's novels, one must conclude that there is something very antithetical to operatic adaptation about them for this to be the case. Though they were inspired, to some extent, by plays, they also felicitously manipulate novelistic conventions with no obvious stage correlatives. Many key scenes turn on the reader's awareness of deep feelings completely at odds with the triviality of the conversation. It is difficult to recreate this effect in the theatre, and perhaps hardest of all in opera, a medium generically disposed to seek out and amplify any whiff of a strong passion.

Mansfield Park strikes me as just about the hardest of the Austen novels to adapt for stage presentation, yet Benjamin Britten and Ronald Duncan began work on an abandoned operatic version in 1946, and one wonders whether Britten found the particular musical resonance in this novel that Jonathan Dove did ("When I first read Mansfield Park … I heard music. … [that] certainly didn't happen when I read other novels by Jane Austen"). Britten decided to compose Albert Herring instead. Over six decades later, Dove's version was commissioned by Heritage Opera and specially designed, delightfully, for performance in what the British call "stately homes," with four-hand piano accompaniment. The premiere was at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, in 2011. The Hampstead Garden Opera production is the first presentation of the work in a more conventional theatrical space, with the intimate Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre attractively transformed into a Regency drawing room.

Anyone who has read the novel will have some idea of the formidable difficulties involved in adapting Mansfield Park for the stage. It has a large cast of significant characters, but the actions of those characters are, for the most part, mediated to the reader through the consciousness of Fanny, the quietest, shyest and (her detractors would add) most annoyingly prim of Austen's heroines. In the opera Fanny is much less central, not necessarily to the detriment of the story, for many literary critics have agreed with Marilyn Butler that "at the centre Fanny is impossible." But with Fanny reduced in importance, Mr. Rushworth (here imagined as an amiable clown rather than Austen's boorish dupe) considerably enlarged, and Maria with him, the opera does suffer from the want of a clear central narrative. It asks us to be interested in the romantic fates of no less than seven young people (Fanny, Edmund, Maria, Julia, Rushworth and the two Crawfords) and attempts to present as much of their entangled stories as possible in the course of about two hours. Henry Crawford becomes the central character in terms of the plot, but he seemed insufficiently developed for such dramatic responsibly, though William Morgan did a very good job with the part as written.

Adapting any classic novel for representation in some other media is admittedly often an ungrateful enterprise, with some critics as irate at excessive fidelity as others are at the lack of it. But Mansfield Park the opera did feel over-full of story. Bruno Ravella, the director of the Hampstead production, must be congratulated for keeping the action coherent, and skillfully managing a great deal of stage movement in a small space, though anyone who had not read the novel, or the very full summary in the program, would still have struggled to follow the plot, especially in the early stages. I couldn't help thinking that a more streamlined libretto focused on the central quartet of Fanny, Edmund and the Crawfords would have worked better, and given the music more room to breathe. As things stand, there is a great deal of bustle and movement, especially in the first and longest of the two acts (culminating in Henry Crawford's statement that he intends to win Fanny's love), very much at odds with the novel's frequent emphasis on long evenings passing slowly as Lady Bertram snoozes on the sofa. The second act unfolds at a gentler pace, but it is hard to escape the feeling that much of the complex emotional wrapping up is rushed.

Dove's sparkling score propels the action forward with great energy. The sound of the piano is particularly appropriate to the drawing room, and sometimes there are direct echoes of the musical world of Austen's England - the sort of music one might expect in a BBC Austen adaptation. For the most part, though, the music aims to be dramatic rather than a period pastiche, and anyone acquainted with Dove's earlier operas, such as Flight, will quickly recognize his distinctive style, especially in the extended ensemble scenes where the music really takes wing. The three older characters, the kind but stern Sir Thomas, the languid Lady Bertram, and the spiteful busybody Mrs. Norris are strongly characterized in the music and were vividly brought to life in the Hampstead production by David Danson, Michelle Juneo and Madeleine Bradbury Rance respectively. The seven young people emerged less firmly individuated, and Mary Crawford, in particular, though Philippa Murray made her sing delectably, seemed too much like the Bertram girls to explain why Edmund found her so very special.

Fanny, of course, represents a special problem, and one not altogether satisfactorily solved. She is the heroine; but she is also the most silent character in the novel. In the opera she is revealed as the heroine primarily by the strength of the feelings she expresses, but this gave her the impression of trying not to burst much of the time, and she seemed rather blustery when she did sing out. Eleanor Minney gave me the impression of struggling with the role, though it may just be that there is an impossible contradiction between Austen's story and the nature of opera here.

Altogether, Dove's Mansfield Park is a brave and enjoyable attempt at creating a Jane Austen opera, though it reveals, too, why the operatic possibilities in her novels have gone so long unexplored. The potent appeal of her name obviously carries the hope that people not ordinarily inclined to go to see new operas will want to see this one, and there is an intrinsic fascination in seeing what can be done, operatically, with a novel like Mansfield Park. But the great strength of Dove's opera, as with much of his music, lies in what it offers the performers. Dove has written of his desire to write "a chamber-opera that really deserved the title," and Mansfield Park is certainly that, beautifully judged in its musical demands. It offers ten meaty, intelligent roles that allow of a good deal of individual interpretation, with at least seven of those tailor-made for young singers (and Madeleine Bradbury Rance as Mrs. Norris showed just how convincingly a talented young actress could assume one of the other roles). For a company like Hampstead Garden Opera, short of space and resources, but big on enthusiasm and commitment to nurturing the careers of young singers, it was an excellent choice, and I was delighted to learn that the ten performances, of which I saw the last, had all sold out.

It seemed to me that Dove and Middleton positioned their opera somewhere between comedy and drama, leaving directors to push it in one direction or the other, or indeed to stick to the middle. The Hampstead performance tended to the comic side, and there were plentiful laughs, especially at the childishness of William Davies's Mr. Rushworth, who perhaps stole the show a little too much. By contrast, Edmund Bertram, the most serious-minded of Austen's ideal men, performed by Dominic Sedgwick, often seemed too much in the background, though in the final scenes, as he denounces Mary Crawford and offers his love to Fanny, Sedgwick delivered some of the finest singing of the afternoon. As with all the Hampstead Garden Opera productions I have seen, everything bounced along with tremendous zest and the piano accompaniment provided by Yau Cheng and Lana Bode was absolutely thrilling, so musically rich that Mansfield Park should persuade other composers to explore the possibilities of chamber opera with four-hand piano.

David Chandler

Cast and production information:

Fanny Price: Eleanor Minney; Sir Thomas Bertram: David Danson; Lady Bertram: Michelle Jueno; Edmund Bertram: Dominic Sedgwick; Maria Bertram: Charlotte Richardson; Julia Bertram: Freya Jacklin; Aunt Norris: Madeleine Bradbury Rance; Henry Crawford: William Morgan; Mary Crawford: Philippa Murray; Mr. Rushworth: William Davies. Production Director: Bruno Ravella. Music Director: Oliver-John Ruthven. Pianists: Yau Cheng and Lana Bode. Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate, London, 28 April 2013 (matinee).

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