Monday 18 September 2017

The Hampshire connection: Jane Austen's Mansfield Park in Jonathan Dove's operatic version at the Grange

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - The Grange Festival - Emily Vine, Sarah Pring, Martha Jones, Oliver Johnston, Angharad Lyddon, Henry Neill, Jeni Bern (Photo Robert Workman)
Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - The Grange Festival - Emily Vine, Sarah Pring, Martha Jones, Oliver Johnston, Angharad Lyddon, Henry Neill, Jeni Bern (Photo Robert Workman)
Jonathan Dove, Alasdair Middleton Mansfield Park; Martha Jones, Henry Neill, Nick Pritchard, Shelley Jackson, dir: Martin Lloyd-Evans, cond: David Parry; The Grange Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 17 2017 Star rating: 4.5
An engaging and moving account of Jonathan Dove's opera based on the Jane Austen novel

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - The Grange Festival - Shelley Jackson, Henry Neill, Martha Jones (Photo Robert Workman)
Shelley Jackson, Henry Neill, Martha Jones (Photo Robert Workman)
Jonathan Dove's opera Mansfield Park, with a libretto by Alasdair Middleton based on Jane Austen's novel, has had long genesis. Dove first had the idea for the opera 30 years ago, it was originally premiered in 2011 in the version for singers and piano duet. Dove's new version with orchestral accompaniment was commissioned by The Grange Festival, and we caught the second performance on Sunday 17 September 2017 at the festival's Autumn season. The new production was directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans with designs by Dick Bird, with Martha Jones as Fanny Price and Henry Neill as Edmund Bertram, plus Sarah Pring, Jeni Bern, Grant Doyle, Shelley Jackson, Emily Vine, Nick Pritchard, Angharad Lyddon and Oliver Johnston. David Parry conducted an ensemble of players from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire.

I had never managed to catch the opera in its original guise, so this was my first experience of it. The piece is somewhat stylised, with the work divided into two books and each book into chapters, and the cast introduce each chapter by reciting the chapter number and title. Alasdiar Middleton's book is a miracle of compression, he has cut out a lot of inessentials such as minor characters and even the scenes in Portsmouth. But the great surprise was how much of the book's atmosphere had been retained, and the opera manages the difficult feat of retaining something of the feel of Austen's original.

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - The Grange Festival - Jeni Bern, Angharad Lyddon, Oliver Johnston, Nick Pritchard, Martha Jones  (Photo Robert Workman)
Jeni Bern, Angharad Lyddon, Oliver Johnston, Nick Pritchard,
and Martha Jones  (Photo Robert Workman)
Mansfield Park works as a piece of musical theatre because Fanny is one of Jane Austen's more introverted characters, Fanny's emotional life is all interior with little exterior and the music can help to show this. When I interviewed Jonathan Dove (see my interview) he talked about the way that, film and TV adaptations of the novel, Fanny's character tended to be livened up, whereas in the opera she remains as she is in the novel. We understand her emotional journey because of the music around her. That said, Martha Jones' Fanny Price was perhaps a tad nicer than her novel counterpart, slightly less the prig.

There was little of the pastiche about Dove's music, whilst retaining the formality necessary for the depiction of early 19th century manners the music is clearly in Dove's idiom moving freely between influences (Britten, Sondheim, Gershwin, Ravel) but always clearly his own voice. In style the music varies from the clearly operatic to more musical theatre elements. By using the singers as an ensemble Dove creates some striking varieties of texture, and one scene 'Follies and Grottoes' was almost unaccompanied with the soloists accompanied by the a cappella ensemble. Dove made striking use of the classic 19th century operatic staple, the operatic ensemble, having characters entering individually and then building to a strong emotional ensemble. The orchestration, for an ensemble of 13 instruments, retained the piano which played a rather concertante role particularly in Act One, as if the piano were the musical response to Fanny Price's emotional life.

There was an element of the young artists programme about the performance. The instrumental ensemble continued Trinity Laban's tradition of Side-by-Side performances by having six students playing alongside the seven professionals from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The singers were similarly cast, with  the younger characters being played by young singers relatively fresh out of college, so that there was a real sense of difference in ages and hierarchies of the characters.

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - The Grange Festival - Sarah Pring (Photo Robert Workman)
Sarah Pring (Photo Robert Workman)
Dick Bird's designs were elegant and flexible, based on a revolve which proved highly adaptable in creating a series of simple yet effective settings. Martin Lloyd-Evans' production had an element of artifice about it, we saw the cast preparing behind the scenes and reacting to us, the audience. Lloyd-Evans successfully followed the work's arc from apparent comedy of manners to something darker in the second act. Though I felt that the scene where Fanny Price was absent in Portsmouth could have made the reasons for her absence on stage rather stronger.

Martha Jones made a strong Fanny Price, conveying the character's emotional depth and showing real purpose particularly in Act Two. She did a fine balancing act between moral strength and charm, whilst singing with lyrical freedom. And, in moments like the scene in Mr Rushworth's park where she is abandoned by all her companions, Jones brought out the character's real poignancy. She was finely partnered by Henry Neill's Edmund who gave a nuanced performance, allowing us to see Edmund's development from the boyish charm of the opening to something deeper and characterful at the end.

If Fanny and Edmund go on an emotional journey, then the cause of it all is the brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford. Here Nick Pritchard and Shelley Jackson were all charm, yet clearly delighted in manipulating people. Pritchard made a highly elegant Henry using his lovely tenor to create a seductive line, with Jackson a captivating Mary, building on the novel's use of Mary's voice as an instrument of seduction. Both characters are put to the test in their relationships with Fanny and Edmund, and both fail. Yet Pritchard and Jackson made us love these characters, and wonder what was going to happen to them.

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - The Grange Festival - Martha Jones, Grant Doyle(Photo Robert Workman)
Martha Jones, Grant Doyle(Photo Robert Workman)
Emily Vine and Angharad Lyddon were a delight as the fashion obsessed Bertram sisters, giddy and not a little shallow, both go adrift. Vine in particular was adept at conveying the frustration and suppressed passions of a girl who married man simply for money. Oliver Johnston made us feel rather sorry for that man, Mr Rushworth. Johnston captured the character's essential shallowness, without ever guying him.

As the older generation, Sarah Pring, Jeni Bern and Grant Doyle gave us three wonderfully etched character studies as Lady Bertram, Aunt Norris and Sir Thomas Bertram. I am not sure that the opera gave Jeni Bern quite as much opportunity to show Aunt Norris's nasty, almost evil development, but Bern did magnificently well and rightly earned a hiss at the end. Sarah Pring made Lady Bertram all shallow elegance, with her obsession with her pug, whilst Doyle was upright and business like, a fearsome paterfamilias with magnificent side-burns!

David Parry conducted with clear love of the music and drew a fine ensemble performance from singers and players.

Ultimately the piece has a rich romantic vein, yet Dove and Middleton bring in some sharp comedy and quite a streak of darkness in the second act. Adding an orchestra seems to have highlighted these aspects, and this was a finely satisfying and rather moving chamber piece.

In this new version, Mansfield Park deserves a long life and this engaging production certainly needs reviving again soon. The opera is a good fit with the theatre at The Grange (and of course the house dates from the period when Jane Austen was living up the road at Chawton), and I hope to see it back soon.

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - The Grange Festival - Shelley Jackson, Henry Neill, Jeni Bern, Martha Jones, Nick Pritchard, Sarah Pring, Grant Doyle (Photo Robert Workman)
Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - The Grange Festival - Shelley Jackson, Henry Neill, Jeni Bern, Martha Jones, Nick Pritchard, Sarah Pring, Grant Doyle (Photo Robert Workman)
Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park
The Grange Festival, 17 September 2017
Fanny Price - Martha Jones
Edmund Bertram - Henry Neill
Lady Bertram - Sarah Pring
Aunt Norris - Jeni Bern
Sir Thomas Bertram - Grant Doyle
Mary Crawford - Shelley Jackson
Maria Bertram - Emily Vine
Henry Crawford - Nick Pritchard
Julia Bertram - Angharad Lyddon
Mr Rushworth - Oliver Johnston
Director Martin Lloyd-Evans
Designer - Dick Bird
Lighting - Howard Hudson
Choreographer - Mandy Demetriou
Conductor David Parry
Members of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and students of Trinity Laban

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