Considering the popularity of Jane Austen’s books as film fodder, it’s remarkable that no one has thought to turn one into an opera until now.
Composer Jonathan Dove says that when he first read Mansfield Park, he heard music: his imagination was fired by the way its heroine Fanny Price suffers in the most expressive silence. For his librettist Alasdair Middleton, this novel was not only suffused with theatre – its characters put on a real play to enact their own dramas – but it also had echoes of both Shakespeare and pantomime, with Fanny being Cordelia to her patron Sir Thomas Bertram’s Lear, and being at the same time a quintessential Cinderella.
But Dove and Middleton had no interest in making this a conventional opera. They decided to create a piece which could be performed in a stately home with piano accompaniment, in a manner which would have been familiar to Austen and her friends: a ‘chamber’ opera in the literal sense of the word. The house would be the set, with the action surrounding the audience. Hampstead Garden Opera’s boss Alastair Macgeorge was up for it, and his brave little company’s auditorium – created a century ago for ‘Balls, Cinderellas and Concerts’ – offered the ideal venue.
And that it is. Ten singers in period costume perform in the simulacrum of a Regency drawing room big enough to accommodate a ball and an amateur play, with an ‘upstairs’ platform for Fanny’s room: it genuinely does feel like Mansfield Park. Jane Austen’s prophetic social panorama is necessarily reduced to its more manageable elements – we get no whiff of Fanny’s grimy origins in Portsmouth – but the underlying clash of moralities (old Tory decency versus nouveau-riche opportunism) comes clearly across. Those not familiar with the novel get a helpfully detailed synopsis: those who love it will recognise some of its choicest moments.
The singers are either semi-amateurs or fledgling professionals, but under Oliver-John Ruthven’s direction and with two brilliant young pianists they put on a sparkling show. William Davies’s Rushworth is a comic booby with pathos, William Morgan’s Crawford is louche and persuasive, and Teresa Pells is utterly convincing as the coquettish and scheming Maria; Sarah Denbee projects veiled power as Fanny. And if the score carries echoes of Sondheim, that’s nothing to be ashamed of: Dove’s theatrical judgment is impeccable, and his brightly-coloured music with its duets, quartets, and tuttis bowls delightfully along.