Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park

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
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).

image_description=A scene from Mansfield Park [Photo by Laurent Compagnon]
product_title=Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park
product_by=A review by David Chandler
product_id=Above: A scene from Mansfield Park [Photo by Laurent Compagnon]