Grimeborn 2011 – Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park [Heritage Opera]

Jonathan Dove
Mansfield Park – Chamber opera in two acts to a libretto by Alasdair Middleton adapted from the novel by Jane Austen [London premiere]

Sir Thomas Bertram – John Rawnsley
Lady Bertram – Nuala Willis
Maria Bertram – Eloise Routledge
Julia Bertram – Paloma Bruce
Edmund Bertram – Thomas Eaglen
Fanny Price – Serenna Wagner
Aunt Norris – Birgit Rohowska
Mary Crawford – Sarah Helsby Hughes
Henry Crawford – Nicholas Sales
Mr Rushworth – Darren Clarke

Jonathan Ellis & Paul Greenhalgh (piano)

Chris Gill – Musical Director
Michael McCaffery – Director
Elroy Ashmore-Short – Designer
Michele Hardy – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 15 August, 2011
Venue: Arcola Theatre, Dalston, London E8

Jane Austen may seem an odd choice to open an opera festival that styles itself “London’s hippest” but needs must when the devil drives, the devil in this case being the enforced cancellation of the pair of Philip Glass chamber operas that had been due to launch Grimeborn 2011. If the prospect of Heritage Opera performing Mansfield Park sounds like a desperately un-cool substitute, be reassured: it’s been composed by Jonathan Dove, the John Rutter of contemporary opera, and it went down a storm with the audience.

The Cinderella among Austen’s output, her “novel in three volumes” is here reduced to two dramatic halves and eighteen scenes. Alasdair Middleton’s libretto is an eloquent dramatisation but there is rather too much of it. The same is true of Dove’s score. It is not a question of duration but, to paraphrase Emperor Joseph II in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, there are too many words and too many notes. The opera as a whole affords so little respite from its rapid onslaught that when a breather does finally appear, late, in Act Two (‘Chapter Five: Follies and Grottoes’), the arrival of a new mood is unnerving. Jonathan Ellis and Paul Greenhalgh labour valiantly at the piano – if they were paid by the key stroke they’d be rich men – but the relentlessness of the opera’s prevailing energy does eventually grow wearisome. Nevertheless this is entertaining music, and few modern new operas can have sent their audience away humming so many felicities. From the syncopated repetition of ‘I like Julia best’ (tenor Nicholas Sales is splendid as Henry Crawford) to the full-cast declamation of ‘Mansfield Park’ across three dense chords, this is music that aims to please.

Melodic lines are tinged with courtliness, but overall Dove’s score has more in common with musical theatre than with the world of the gavotte. It is conducted with vitality and precision by Chris Gill, whose contribution to the success of the performance is palpable. The opera’s dramaturgy, though, is a problem, because in opting to accentuate the ensemble nature of their piece Middleton and Dove have neglected to trace a clear dramatic path for the central characters. Serenna Wagner, for example, is a personable Fanny Price but she should have been given more scope to explore this most complex of Austen heroines. The objects of her relationships, too, especially Edmund Bertram (Thomas Eaglen sings richly as the aspiring clergyman), are insufficiently defined to communicate the inner lives that draw them together. In short, Dove does not earn our engagement with their destiny. It’s another aspect of the ‘too many notes’ problem, for characterisation is something the scoring should have allowed itself the space to do. On the other hand several of the players bring their characters to the fore by sheer weight of their talent and presence. The distinguished baritone John Rawnsley is vocally and dramatically magnetic as Thomas Bertram, while Eloise Routledge is the pick of the younger singers as his troubled daughter Maria.

The ten-strong cast looks rather squeezed on the new Arcola Theatre’s performing space, but Michael McCaffery has directed the opera to suit a range of venues from stately homes to town halls so he gets away with it. His staging is inventive yet unfussy, an exemplary deployment of limited resources and all the more effective for not drawing attention to itself. Elroy Ashmore-Short’s central design is a giant page from Chapter One of the novel, with a scattering of complementary book-based props and furniture that provide the players with all they need to tell their story; costumes are heritage-traditional as might be expected, their colours set in sharp relief against the white environment. Although this London appearance was a late footnote at the end of a summer tour, Mansfield Park is several cuts above most pocket opera productions and it merits an early revival.

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