Buxton International Festival – Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park – directed by Rebecca Meltzer

Mansfield Park – Chamber opera in two Acts to a libretto by Alasdair Middleton after the novel by Jane Austen [sung in English]

Fanny Price – Sian Griffiths
Edmund Bertram – Milo Harries
Maria Bertram – Ellie Neate
Julia Bertram – Sarah Anne Champion
Lady Bertram – Emily Grey
Sir Thomas – Phil Wilcox
Henry Crawford – Robin Bailey
Mary Crawford – Eleanor Sanderson-Nash
Mr Rushworth – Lawrence Thackeray
Aunt Norris – Eleanor Garside

Bradley Wood & George Ireland (piano)

Rebecca Meltzer – Director
Jane Black – Costume Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 12 July, 2022
Venue: St John’s Church, Buxton, Derbyshire, England

Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park effectively constitutes an operatic ‘costume’ drama, to parallel the many similar series which regularly feature on television to popular acclaim. This is a much more concise work, however, by concentrating into two Acts (each divided into ‘chapters’ which are announced by the singers) the main incidents of the novel through a little less than two hours. It is carried along by the rhythmic and thematic insistence of Dove’s tonal music, where changes of dramatic situation or mood are marked by bold shifts in harmony, texture, or meter.  

Rebecca Meltzer’s production has the cast in correct Regency costume – as also the two accompanists at the piano, who therefore are very much part of what becomes a drawing-room performance in scale.  Except for the Victorian furnishings of Buxton’s St John the Baptist Church (built 1811), the venue is stylistically and chronologically appropriate as the setting for the performance. But the production does not slavishly adhere to the aesthetic of the Regency period – for instance the choreography tellingly departs from the decorum of that era (jazz hands and more raucous interplay among the characters) at the point when Sir Thomas leaves home for a period and those present at Mansfield Park rehearse a play, which is firmly put to an end when he returns. 

This brief, tentative departure from choreographic authenticity surely raises the question whether the premises of Austen’s literary work need remain quite so firmly tied to the Regency period at all in such an adaptation as this but could instead be freed and explored within some other contexts, just as Dove’s score does not pastiche the music of her era, apart from the re-interpretation of some dance forms for the ball scene. (Incidentally it is also revealing that the soundtracks of so many film and television adaptations seem to betray unintentionally the desire to keep Austen’s work so suffocatingly tied up in a prissy stereotype of petticoats, snuff boxes, breeches and the like, by using extracts from composers, or in the style of the high Classicism, of at least two decades before the novels were written – rather than demonstrate any awareness of the proto-Romanticism that had already influenced music by this time, such as by Beethoven, Hummel, Clementi and so on.)

Despite their dialogue not always being clear, the cast credibly and idiomatically recreate the household at Mansfield Park. The singers cultivate distinctive vocal and theatrical personalities – as vivid as those drawn by Austen in the original – not least in Sian Griffiths’s circumspect depiction of Fanny Price initially, whose role in the opera is somewhat more peripheral as compared with the novel, before flourishing with more overt passion as she is happily partnered with Milo Harries’s mannerly Edmund Bertram. Robin Bailey stands out for his firmly projected, confident account of Henry Crawford, whilst Lawrence Thackeray is an amiably lumbering Mr Rushworth. Phil Wilcox exerts respectable authority as Sir Thomas, and the ladies generally manifest suitable gentility – indeed Eleanor Garside could be more waspish as the dreadful Aunt Norris, with her menacing pug.  Bradley Wood and George Ireland maintain a thrilling and almost nervous excitability in the piano-duet accompaniment, keeping the drama moving forwards energetically, rather than succumbing to the same easeful platitudes to which the libretto occasionally resorts.

Overall, this production enlivens a subtle and intricate narrative by Austen, not the most obvious one to have turned into an opera but all the more welcome for that fact.

Further performances to July 21

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