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Reviews

<em>Mansfield Park</em> at The Grange
18 Sep 2017

Mansfield Park at The Grange

In her 200th anniversary year, in the county of her birth and in which she spent much of her life, and two days after she became the first female writer to feature on a banknote - the new polymer £10 note - Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park made a timely appearance, in operatic form, at The Grange in Hampshire.

Mansfield Park at The Grange

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The cast of Mansfield Park

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

I’m not sure how many of the audience at The Grange for the first of two performances of Jonathan Dove’s opera were Austen aficionados but the foot-stamping reception that the full house gave the composer’s newly orchestrated opera suggested that they thought he’d told a good tale. Indeed, Dove and his librettist Alasdair Middleton, did provide us with a charming entertainment which was stylishly and slickly staged by director Martin Lloyd-Evans and designer Dick Bird, and I was undoubtedly in a minority, though not wholly alone, in finding the opera more divertissement than drama.

Alasdair Middleton has drawn his libretto, largely, from Austen’s text but the necessary omission of characters and incidents transforms what is often seen by literary critics as a ‘problem novel’ into a comedy of manners whose satire has been diluted. Little of the ‘darkness’ of the novel is retained in the opera, and even when the protagonists undergo trials and tribulations in the second act, the superficial characterisation of the opening act prevents them acquiring a convincing tragic dimension.

There is little sense, for example, of the fear or passivity that Sir Thomas Bertram’s autocracy inspires, and while Lady Bertram is appropriately obsessed with her pug, unlike Austen’s original she is not sluggish and distracted, rather as garrulous and assertive as Emma’s Miss Bates, and she joins in the family theatricals and dancing with sprightly spryness.

We have none of the preparative ‘back story’, which explains how Fanny Price came to live in her uncle’s house, along with Aunt Norris, and other than a brief allusion to Edward Bertram’s kindness to his young cousin, there is little to establish the nature of Fanny’s ‘role’ in the household - that is, to elevate her cousins by mere fact of her own lowly presence as an ‘interesting object’. Thus, the aristocrats’ ‘benevolent plan’ is deprived of its underlying self-serving motivations and Austen’s jibe that aristocratic compassion is designed to benefit the benefactors is weakened.

In particular, there is none of Austen’s bittersweet irony; and, none of what one critic describes as the novel’s ‘defiant potential’, reflecting the debate between those who see Austen as a defender of the moral status quo and those who see her as a satirical critic of the hypocritical social mores of her day.

In the opera, Maria’s delight at the prospect of wedlock - “I’m going to marry a country seat” - is not dented, nor the audience’s laughter diminished, by her brother Edmund’s observation that, “If this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow”. And, when - declining the opportunity offered by her father to extricate herself from a lamented engagement - she admits that she has traded personal desire and fulfilment for a Wimpole Street abode and £20,000 a year because marriage to the weak-willed Rushworth will afford her “independence”, Austen’s irony, even anger, at the insincerity of the notion that such social contracts are ‘democratic’ is wholly absent.

Proposal.jpg Angharad Lyddon (Julia Bertram), Emily Vine (Maria Bertram), Martha Jones (Fanny Price). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

The omission of the Portsmouth episode deprives us of the symbolic opposition of town and country, of artifice and nature. Moreover, Fanny’s passivity, physical frailty and moral stasis - Kingsley Amis condemned her as a ‘monster of complacency and pride’ - are not subject to scrutiny; as a result, her unwillingness to cross the ha-ha at Sotherton lacks figurative weight. Edmund’s explanation to the rebellious Mary Crawford that, “Every sort of exercise fatigues [Fanny] so soon, except riding” is retained but, deprived of context, we do not infer Austen’s criticism of Fanny’s unwillingness to act or change. Given the largest vocal role, Fanny assumes a centrality and ‘moral rightness’ which she does not possess in the novel, and this is exacerbated when Henry Crawford reprises her words at the end of the opera: “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

There are some effective comic gestures and witty ensembles - the dining room scene, ‘Landscape Gardening’, in which the Bertrams evince an unnaturally vigorous enthusiasm to visit Sotherton to help the hapless Mr Rushworth get his natural vegetation under control was deftly done, for example. The amateur dramatics are made foolishly melodramatic by the emotive rendition of the vivid ensemble, ‘Lovers’ Vows’. But, I found many of the episodes more twee than Albert Herring - which, ironically, was the opera which Britten composed when he’d abandoned his own plan to compose an opera on Mansfield Park, and which does subsume some of the probing satire of Maupassant’s original short story from which it is derived.

Ballroom.jpg Shelley Jackson (Mary Crawford), Henry Neill (Edmund Bertram), Jeni Bern (Aunt Norris), Martha Jones (Fanny Price), Nick Pritchard (Henry Crawford), Sarah Pring (Lady Bertram), Grant Doyle (Sir Thomas Bertram). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Perhaps I would have been less troubled by such matters had Dove’s score held my attention more persuasively. Mansfield Park was commissioned by Heritage Opera in 2011 and was originally scored for piano four-hands (this version was reviewed by Opera Today when it was revived by Hampstead Garden Opera in 2013). At The Grange, it was performed in a newly orchestrated version for a chamber ensemble of 13 players (commissioned by The Grange Festival).

There is no doubting the composer’s ability to set text in naturalistic vocal rhythms, and to create the sort of spare orchestral textures - often just a single bassoon or piano line - which allow the words to be readily discerned. The result is fluent theatre but also a certain predictability: the vocal melodies run a predictable course; the instrumental patterns and ostinatos recur and persist. Growing tension is sign-posted by increasingly deafening timpani pounding accompanied by large vocal leaps. There are passages that sound like Britten, others that resemble Sondheim.

I heard ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber’ on the lips of more than one audience member, and while there may be nothing wrong with being mentioned alongside the master of music theatre, I sensed that the comments reflected a perceived lack of harmonic and structural sophistication, with which I would concur. The waltzes of the ballroom scene spun over a descending ground bass which put me in mind of Pachelbel’s Canon. Perhaps the neoclassicism was an apt idiom for both the narrative and our performance venue, but the endless arpeggiations and dance forms became tiresome.

As we swept through the narrative - each ‘chapter’ introduced by a choric, or occasionally solo, summary pronouncement - I longed for some spaciousness in which character and emotion could develop: the equivalent of Austen’s penetrating focalisation. The characters exchanged bon mots with rapidity and the first act contained scarcely a single ‘aria moment’, although Fanny, disappointingly deprived of the opportunity to express her inner life more fully in the ‘Wilderness’ scene, was given a moment of exposition in Act Two. A ‘letter scene’ briskly dashes through the latter events of the novel, effectively suggesting simultaneity of action but glossing over the sort of discerning character motivation which might make the happy ending more probable and persuasive. In the final scene, the characters collectively declaim the opening of Austen’s final chapter: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.” The dismissal of ‘disorder’ did indeed feel rather hasty.

Wilderness.jpg 'The Wilderness'. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

However, as I said at the start of this review, my misgivings about the opera itself were apparently not shared by the majority of the audience, and their pleasure was in no small part occasioned by Lloyd-Evans’ astute, efficient direction and Bird’s charming design. Two imposing Classical pillars (a nod to The Grange’s imitation Greek Temple façade) positioned at the edge of a revolving set, contained their own revolving exterior/interior, allowing for fluent, often beguiling, transitions from lounge to lawn, and from sunshine to starlight. Sotherton’s ‘wilderness’, with its back-cloth vista à la Gainsborough, was especially elegant.

The cast, too, acquitted themselves very well. Emily Vine sparkled as the ever more impetuous Maria; as her sister, Julia, Angharad Lyddon’s lyrical mezzo almost burst with excitement at the pleasure inspired by the thought of owning a barouche. Shelley Jackson’s big, forceful soprano was the perfect conduit for Mary Crawford’s self-confidence and thrill-seeking, while Martha Jones effectively projected Fanny Price’s combination of righteousness and reluctance.

Henry Neill acted superbly as the caring but unknowing Edmund Bertram; his strong baritone imbued the ‘younger son’ with moral maturity. Nick Pritchard, too, made as much as he could of the caddish Henry Crawford, while Oliver Johnston convinced in his sometimes poignant portrayal of the ineffectual and foolish Mr Rushworth who nevertheless does all he can to please his ungrateful, and unaffectionate, wife.

Grant Doyle exuded imperious authority as Sir Thomas Bertram - who, Austen tells us, ‘had never seemed the friend of [his children’s] pleasures - thundering one-word commands and declarations: “Antigua. Sugar. Bristol. Plantation. Profit. Freight. Profit. Pride. Position. Posterity. Estate.” I did not care for Sarah Pring’s interpretation of Lady Bertram, but she relished her one-liners - “pug is getting peaky” - and her full mezzo assisted her ‘larger than life’ portrayal. Jeni Bern didn’t seem anywhere near snide enough as Mrs Norris, but she slipped neatly into the ensembles.

Claire Seymour

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park

Fanny Price - Martha Jones, Mary Crawford - Shelley Jackson, Henry Crawford - Nick Pritchard, Edmund Bertram - Henry Neill, Maria Bertram - Emily Vine, Mr Rushworth - Oliver Johnston, Julia Bertram - Angharad Lyddon, Sir Thomas Bertram - Grant Doyle, Lady Bertram - Sarah Pring, Aunt Norris - Jeni Bern; Director - Martin Lloyd-Evans, Conductor - David Parry, Set Designer - Dick Bird, Lighting Designer - Howard Hudson, Choreography - Mandy Demetriou, Orchestra (members of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and students of Trinity Laban).

Grange Festival Opera at The Grange, Hampshire; Saturday 16th September 2017.

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