Jonathan's Dove's operatic version of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park is an ace and since its premier in 2011 has quickly become a favourite of the modern repertoire. This production directed by Bradley Wood and Rebecca Meltzer, has already been a success two years ago, and on tour, and there was general rejoicing at its revival in the present season.
Written as a chamber opera, and scored for four hands at the piano, it is perfect for performance in a setting such as Waterperry, where the ballroom of the Georgian country house makes an audience feel that we really are at Mansfield Park - an agreeable illusion fostered by the way that the cast, in costume, stand in little social groups in the front hall and on the landing as we walk up the grand staircase.
The bold opening bursts on us, and the story begins with Fanny Price, the heroine, already grown up and Maria Bertram newly engaged to Mr Rushworth. The past is filled in with allusions, and the music, which is high-spirited, energetic and urgent, sends the story bowling along at a brisk pace.
To call Dove's music neoclassical gives little idea of its vitality and fecundity. It is tonal, avoiding pastiche, and offers expressive lines and solos for the lead characters. With its rhyming libretto by Alasdair Middleton, the work manages to convey both the comedy and the agony of this very psychological novel. Of course a lot has been cut down and summarized to fit into a performance with ten singers lasting less than two hours, but the result is a version of the story full of passionate conviction.
Changes of scene are created imaginatively, with the singers representing such things as a carriage ride and the trees of the shrubbery at Sotherton through ingenious mime and gesture.
When it came to the scene of the ball given at Mansfield for Fanny's coming out, the setting was of course ideal, and the cast performed a most admirable, graceful Regency dance that was a delight to behold.
In the role of the heroine Fanny Price, soprano Sian Griffiths had to be self-effacing yet when she sang, her voice was warm and full of depth. She well conveyed the pathos of Fanny's jealousy of the vivacious Mary Crawford, and then the surprise of her defiance when she tells her uncle she will not marry Henry Crawford. When she eventually finds happiness with Edmund, she is radiant with joy.
As Edmund, Milo Harries was quite perfect. With his strong, firm voice he managed to convey both the seriousness and the sensitivity of the character. Robin Bailey excelled in the role of Henry Crawford, the rich philanderer who cannot resist trying his dangerous charm on the women who are hardest to get. Julia Bertram (Sarah Anne Champion) attractive though she is, would be too easy a conquest, so he sets out to captivate the already engaged Maria (Ellie Neate) and then the reserved, inscrutable Fanny Price. After the performance, one of the audience, meeting him in the garden, said, "You're a scoundrel", which was a suitable compliment.
In the role of the worldly-wise Mary, Eleanor Sanderson-Nash gave full play to a brilliant and soaring soprano voice. She was assured and accomplished, everything Miss Crawford should be.
Lawrence Thackeray took the role of the foolish Mr Rushworth, here presented as a complete buffoon. He projected plenty of comedy during the theatricals, boasting about his pink cloak and two-and-forty speeches. As Lady Bertram, Emily Gray lavished her affection on a hideous pug she carried everywhere, while Eleanor Garside, managed to convey economically the snobbery and bossiness of Mrs Norris.
The role of Sir Thomas was sung by Phil Wilcox with suitable authority and his powerful bass voice added something to the painful confrontation with Fanny, as he is able to intimidate her in more ways than one.
This production suffered from only two minor drawbacks, one being the unusually warm weather, which made the room less comfortable than it would have been in other circumstances. Fans oscillated ceaselessly in the hands of ladies in the audience. The other was the fact that the powerful voices of the singers are trained for the acoustics of a large hall or opera-house, and even with a piano score, the volume of the music in that space was overwhelming. I am sure that this production and this opera will continue to be a huge success despite those circumstances, and I look forward to seeing it again, perhaps performed in a larger venue or outdoors.