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Mansfield Park is not many people's favourite Jane Austen novel, but composer Jonathan Dove has said that he 'felt music running through it' as he read it. Interestingly, it was also a short-lived operatic project for Benjamin Britten in 1946.
Commissioned by Heritage Opera and first staged in 2011, Dove's version, with a libretto by frequent collaborator Alasdair Middleton, is designed as a chamber-scale piece for country-house performance, with a cast of ten and an instrumental part for piano duet. He later made a version for small orchestra, but apparently prefers the original. The scenario is divided into eighteen 'chapters', whose headings are sung by the cast, or sometimes just single voices - an endearingly quirky framing device.
We observe the Bertram family - Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, daughters Maria and Julia, and son Edmund - through the eyes of Lady Bertram's niece Fanny Price, living with them as a poor relation. Also involved are the wealthy, dim Mr Rushworth, owner of nearby Sotherton Park, his new tenants, Henry Crawford and his sister, Mary, and Fanny's Aunt Norris, Lady Bertram's widowed older sister.
Sian Griffiths captured Fanny Price's essential seriousness, growing in stature as the opera proceeds, with Milo Harries as her polar opposite, eager-beaver Edmund Bertram. Ellie Neate and Sarah Champion were suitably high-spirited as Maria and Julia Bertram, not least in their attempts to put on a play in their father's absence on business, Phil Wilcox's Sir Thomas Bertram was authoritative but not over-bearing, while Emily Gray's Lady Bertram carried the weight of her experience as constantly as she did her lapdog.
Robin Bailey's flirtatious Henry Crawford complemented Eleanor Sanderson-Nash's knowing sophisticate Mary Crawford. Lawrence Thackeray's obtuse Mr Rushworth cut an amusing figure as he struggled to learn his lines for the play. Eleanor Garside was a twittery, prickly Aunt Norris.
Rebecca Meltzer's production, for the Waterperry Opera Festival, and staged for Buxton by staff director Eleanor Burke, is designed to be adaptable to a variety of spaces. But St John's Church proved to be less than ideal. Sight-lines will have been problematic for anyone sitting more than about half-way back, and the resonant acoustic swallowed too many of the words. In particular, the contents of the important letters read out in Act 2, 'Chapter Four', did not come across as well as they needed to. And each of the sopranos tended to force the tone on high notes. For those familiar with the novel, following the plot would have been a breeze, but I, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one, was left struggling, sometimes even to work out who was who.
Some scenes did make their mark - the 'at Somerton' ensemble, as the Bertrams look forward to visiting it; preparations for the play, and Sir Thomas's shutting the idea down on his unexpected return; the social awkwardness of the ball at the start of Act II.
Dove's score, deftly played by the production's music director Bradley Wood and répétiteur George Ireland, in period costume, has his usual hallmarks - an instrumental style informed by occasional echoes of John Adams, and a ready vocal lyricism with nods to Sondheim, even the occasional Britten-like moment. Yet it never sounds derivative.
Dove is undoubtedly one of the finest opera composers around at present. Mansfield Park here got the cohesive ensemble playing it demands, but a chance to see it again, in a more appropriate venue, would be welcome.
Copyright © 25 July 2022