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New Notes: Mansfield Park

by on 17 September 2017

Mansfield Park

by Jonathan Dove, libretto Alasdair Middleton, adapted from Jane Austen

Grange Festival at The Grange, Hampshire 16th and 17th September

Review by Mark Aspen

Last Thursday, the Bank of England issued the new ten-pound note.  All polymer and holograms it is certainly not Regency style … but it does feature that epitome of Regency style, Jane Austen, who died two hundred years ago this summer, in a little house tucked in alongside Winchester College.  Just ten miles away, across beautiful Hampshire countryside, stands the magnificent edifice of The Grange, which remarkably is also equidistant from Steventon, her birthplace.

Hence, there could not then be a more propitious place to premiere the newly orchestrated version of Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park as the closing opera of the inaugural season of the new Grange Festival.  There is a unity of place (and indeed the novel is all about place, the enclosure of the eponymous park), which follows through into the music and the libretto.

The concept of adapting a multifaceted Regency novel into a play, let alone an opera is a daunting one.  Back in 1946, Benjamin Britten and Ronald Duncan had a crack at it and gave up (going for Albert Herring instead: another Grange Festival triumph this season).  In the novel, the story, with all its myriad personalities, is seen through the eyes of Fanny Price: an uncomfortable viewpoint for the widely-encompassing vista of opera.  However, librettist Alasdair Middleton has filleted out all the minor characters (and some of the major ones) to get to the meat; and much of the plot goes with the bones to leave all the juiciest bits of Austen’ tale of repressed passions.

Eschewing the temptation of a period pastiche, Jonathan Dove’s score is fresh and lively, but with a repressed urgency that brings out the anguish of conflicting emotions that Mansfield Park is all about.  Originally writing for two pianists at one piano, Dove has rounded out the new version for a chamber orchestra.  The piano still takes the music forward, but it is beautifully coloured by the other instruments.     The music speaks of the torment of repressed yearnings in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of Vivaldi, yet modernistic in hinting at the sostenuto of Sondheim and the ostinato of Glass.  It constantly comments on the action on stage.

Mansfield Park - Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton - Jane Austen - The Grange Festival - 16th September 2017 Fanny Price - Martha Jones Lady Bertram - Sarah Pring Sir Thomas Bertram - Grant Doyle Maria Bertram - Emily Vine Julia Bertram - Angharad Lyd

And here is a stage that mirrors the action.  All is prim, tidy ordered white stucco and Ionic columns, with a feel of bisque porcelain.  Cleverly compact, it comprises a double revolve in which the components of place dissolve, move and reassemble, just as the characters, their emotions and their relationships dissolve, move and reassemble.  Elegantly designed by Dick Bird (the creator of the three-dimensional silk seas in the ENO-Met production of The Pearl Fishers), it is a paragon of precision.

Sir Thomas Bertram, the master at Mansfield Park opens in explanation of what the place, and, by extension the family, is all about, “profit, pride, position, profit, posterity, estate”.  Australian baritone, Grant Doyle portrays Sir Thomas, the authoritarian patrician, as the moral and organisational spine of the household, but a man observant, knowing and not without a heart.  Lady Bertram has centred all her concerns around her pet pug, and even loves its “asthmatic sighs”, for here even the animals are a metaphor for the estate of Mansfield Park.   Mezzo Sarah Pring plays Lady B with a great sense of glee, a woman mindful of her position, but happy not to be too mindful.

The mercenary side of the family estate is all-too evident in their daughters, Maria and Julia, bursting with anticipation of a husband worth £12,000 a year (think a hundredfold in 2017 terms), and a barouche (think a chauffeur-driven Bentley): these are the only criteria.  Emily Vine and Angharad Lyddon, in an animated performance as the two sisters, quiver at the thought, and scuttle around vying for favour.

Mansfield Park - Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton - Jane Austen - The Grange Festival - 16th September 2017 Fanny Price - Martha Jones Lady Bertram - Sarah Pring Sir Thomas Bertram - Grant Doyle Maria Bertram - Emily Vine Julia Bertram - Angharad Lyd

Maria is however engaged to be married to Mr Rushworth, who is sufficiently wealthy but not quite as dashing as she would have hoped.  Tenor, Oliver Johnston’s hapless Rushworth is not the moneyed buffoon of Austen’s novel, but a much more likeable, amiable man, trying to do his best by everyone.  Soon Rushworth invites one and all to see his landscape gardening at his estate at Sotherton.  (Bird’s backdrop for this scene, executed with superb draughtsmanship, is a representation of Strawberry Hill House, itself associated with Regency excess.)  It is here in the scene In the Wilderness (“in which the estate is explored”) that this production gets to the quintessence of the novel.  It oozes with the symbolism of sexual repression (although Jane Austen would probably not have termed it thus).  There are serpentine paths through the garden (temptation in Eden) to a gate (set in upright rigid railings), which bars the ordered propriety of the garden from the untamed wilderness beyond.  The gate can only be unlocked by the husband-to-be’s key.  But Maria has already climbed over the gate with another, in spite of Fanny’s (pre-Freudian) warning, “You will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes, you will tear your gown”.

The “another” is sporty rake Henry Crawford who, with his stylish sister Mary, has burst in on the Bertram household bringing the whiff of louche London with them.  The sparkling and seductive pair shatter the stiff starchiness of the Mansfield estate.  Nick Pritchard brings a fine tenor voice and a bright-eyed energy to the part of Crawford, and as the confident anti-heroine Mary, Shelley Jackson excels.  Her coloratura soprano singing savours the sensuality of the part, emphasising the notion of the serpentine path, as she holds and colours the “s-s-s-serpentine” with a wicked glint in her eye.

With the stern presence of Sir Thomas out of the way, managing his sugar plantations in Antigua, there is opportunity for flirtatious licence in the form of “amateur theatricals”, a play called Lovers’ Vows.  “It’s only a play”, all the participants lie to each other.

Dissenting voices of decorum are however heard; one in the form of the straitlaced Aunt Norris the éminence grise of Mansfield Park, who has never approved of Fanny Price as not quite one-of-us, and as widow of a clergyman definitely finds the Crawfords’ decadence beyond the pale.  The ever versatile Jeni Bern puts punch into this part: one can almost feel the tutting.  However, even Aunt Norris relents and even organises the building of the stage, such is the seductive ambience.

Edmond Bertram, the youngest son of the family, stands on less solid ground.  As a forthcoming ordinand, the morals of his calling are greatly tested by the presence of the vivacious Mary Crawford, much to the anguish of Fanny whose fondest for Edmond since they were children is gradual developing to love.  Newcomer Henry Neill depicts the dichotomy of the principled Edmond’s emotions with sensitivity, and his precise singing voice comes to the fore particularly in the all too few occasions that he has a duet with Fanny.

Fanny Price is of course the heroine of Austen’s novel, but in Dove’s Mansfield Park she is not so much in the foreground: Austen purists would probably blanch at this.  The opera, as a result, is more of an ensemble piece.  The nearest that Fanny gets to a full-blown aria, as opposed to simple solos, is when she is given a necklace by Edmund, “Oh, this is beautiful indeed … the thing I wished for”.   Which is a shame: I would have liked to hear more of Martha Jones as Fanny, as this piece is a nice showcase for a beautiful mezzo voice.  Why a mezzo as heroine, one might ask, the mezzo, jokingly the realm of witches, bitches and beeches?  Dove answers that it is because Fanny is an “inward character”.  Fanny is certainly an introvert, but I think the mezzo works here because of the deep (no pun intended) currents that run under Fanny’s emotions.   And this is how Jones plays her, reticent but observing, absorbing, processing the world around her.  She is self-protective, but has very strong feelings on the morals of that world.

It is Fanny who wins out in the end, going we feel to a life of future happiness, while the Crawfords et al slink off to the “follies and grottos of Twickenham”.  Ah, naughty Twickers! –like Strawberry Hill another symbol of Georgian dissolution.

We are told is it all down to “the god of love, the god of chance” in a memorable and neatly executed dance scene.  Choreographer, Mandy Demetriou even has the well-grounded Lady Bartram tripping in delight!

Mansfield Park - Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton - Jane Austen - The Grange Festival - 16th September 2017 Fanny Price - Martha Jones Lady Bertram - Sarah Pring Sir Thomas Bertram - Grant Doyle Maria Bertram - Emily Vine Julia Bertram - Angharad Lyd

The thirteen-piece chamber orchestra is in the very capable hands of conductor David Parry who tackles the work with élan at a bright sparkling pace.  Director Martin Lloyd-Evans, who has a great eye for the symmetry of the presentation, which overcomes the difficulties of staging a stripped-down novel.  It is a great tribute to him that in this Mansfield Park the characters are not stiff and unyielding, but humanity always breaks through.  The finale has an uplifting chorus in which the character tell each other “Let us learn to love”.

Some have further to go than others, but perhaps the new ten-pound note might have made a good metaphor for the characters of Mansfield Park.  We are told it has serpentine lines, see-through windows, changing images and tactile features.   And, there in the centre of the note is Jane Austen’s brother’s estate, as grand as The Grange, which we could imagine as a forlorn Mansfield Park.

Mark Aspen
September 2017
Photogrpahs by Robert Workman

 

 

 

From → Opera, Reviews

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