Monday 27 March 2023

'Let other pens dwell on misery and grief' - a joyous ensemble performance of Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park from RNCM Opera

Jonathan Dove - Mansfield Park - RNCM Opera (Photo Robin Clewley)
Jonathan Dove - Mansfield Park - RNCM Opera (Photo Robin Clewley)

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park; director Stephen Barlow, conductor Lee Reynolds, RNCM Opera; Royal Northern College of Music
Reviewed 26 March 2023

A young cast brings the operatic Mansfield Park to life in an engaging & ultimately moving production that placed Austen herself at its centre

Jonathan Dove's orchestral adaptation of his 2011 opera Mansfield Park (originally written for soloists and piano duet) debuted at The Grange Festival in 2017 [see my review]. With its cast of youthful characters, and a Mozartian-sized orchestra, the work makes a good fit for music colleges and the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) planned a production in 2020. Two months into rehearsals director Stephen Barlow and the cast came to a halt and the production was shelved. Amazingly it has been resuscitated.

On Sunday 26 March, Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton's Mansfield Park opened at the RNCM as part of the college's 50th anniversary celebrations. Lee Reynolds conducted, Stephen Barlow directed, with designs by Yannis Thavoris, lighting by Jason Taylor, choreography by Bethan Rhys William. Olivia Tringham was Fanny Price, Rebecca Anderson was Lady Bertram, Jonathan Hill was Sir Thomas Bertram, Jessica Hopkins was Maria Bertram, Sarah Winn was Julia Bertram, Conrad Chatterton was Edmund Bertram, Christina Orjis was Aunt Norris, Anusha Bobby was Mary Crawford, Henry Strutt was Henry Crawford, and Liam Forrest was Mr Rushworth. The cast was largely new for 2023, with Olivia Tringham (Fanny) and Christina Orjis (Aunt Norris) returning from 2020.

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - Olivia Tringham - RNCM Opera (Photo Robin Clewley)
Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - Olivia Tringham - RNCM Opera (Photo Robin Clewley)

Thavoris' set was based around elements of a circular neo-classical room into which extra elements could be moved to suggest gardens, grottoes and even a ship for Sir Thomas' journey. Almost in the dead centre of the circle was Olivia Tringham's Fanny, sitting at a small round table (evidently inspired by the one at Chawton where, amidst the disturbances of family life, Jane Austen wrote her novels). At the end of the opera, the link was directly made between Fanny's writing and the novel Mansfield Park. One of the strengths of Dove and Middleton's version of the story is that it gives Fanny the sort of inner life that she has in the book, without 'livening her up'.

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - Conrad Chatterton, Anusha Bobby - RNCM Opera (Photo Robin Clewley)
Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - Conrad Chatterton, Anusha Bobby
RNCM Opera (Photo Robin Clewley)
If Fanny Price was the author at the centre of the circle,, there were two disturbing elements outside of it. Anusha Bobby's Mary Crawford and Henry Strutt's Henry Crawford. Barlow emphasised this both by having them outside the charmed circle for much of the action and also by having them in modern dress. They are the modern, disruptive attituded which ultimately the rather more grounded Fanny Price's good sense rebuffs.

Olivia Tringham gave Fanny Price a real sense of being centred and grounded, there was a real solidity to her and we felt the sharp power of her observations. Because I was seeing the opera for a second time, or perhaps because a new cast and production gave a different focus, but I felt the power of librettist Alasdair Middleton's metaphorical allusions - in the play scenes, lines from the play text are profoundly apposite to the characters' lives, and in the garden scenes, such the talk as losing oneself in the wilderness. So, the scene at Sotherton, 'In the Wilderness' really told, and you felt Olivia Tringham's Fanny Price as not just put upon, but the still centre around which the other characters flew.

Conrad Chatterton's Edmund spent most of the opera, when not singing, at his prie-dieu. There was a solidity to him, almost a dullness and his emotional intelligence seemed low. yet Chatterton made him dignified and sympathetic, with the final illumination being rather touching.

As the two disruptive characters, Anusha Bobby and Henry Strutt were brilliant, after all the two characters are gifts and the two singers gave sharply observed performances. Bobby's Mary was so sharp you could cut her. She brought real star power to the character's high-lying music, whilst flitting through the other characters with a wry sense of observation and disengagement that inevitably seduces Edmund but ultimately shocks him.

Henry Strutt's Henry Crawford was all charm and lack of moral seriousness. In the first act, Strutt developed a delightful game of flirtations with the sisters, but in the second act, he managed the balancing act that kept us guessing. The question is at the heart of book, if Fanny Price had said yet to him, would he have settled. The reaction Olivia Tringham's Fanny Price to his proposal and her furious denigration of his flirtation with the engaged sister in act one, made clear the author's view.

Around these circulated the other characters, each beautifully delineated. Christina Orjis was delightfully sharp as Aunt Norris, a put down of Fanny always to the ready. Rebecca Anderson was an elegant dimwit Lady Bertram, complete with a pug cushion. Jessica Hopkins and Sarah Winn were all careless elegance and thoughtless actions as Maria and Julia Bertram, though I felt the production could have differentiated them somewhat more and it took time for the details of Hopkins' and Winn's characterisations to tell.

Jonathan Hill was a soft-edged yet bluff Sir Thomas, whilst Liam Forrest made a touching Mr Rushworth, horribly aware during the 'Some Correspondence' scene in the second act of the gap between himself and his wife.

But what impressed me most was the sense of a strong ensemble, of the group telling the story. As Middleton's libretto becomes more conventionally operatic in the second act, I felt that this production rather successfully kept the feel of the original book and tamped down the musical theatre exuberance.

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - RNCM Opera (Photo Robin Clewley)
Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - RNCM Opera (Photo Robin Clewley)

Balance rather favoured the orchestra. Perhaps Lee Reynolds and the players were a tag exuberant, or perhaps Thavoris' set required the singers to be a little too far up stage. Concomitantly, diction was perhaps not as clear as it could be and we did need the surtitles.

This was an engaging and ultimately moving afternoon in the theatre. Dove and Middleton make the ending be about the group experience and here the long final ensemble, 'Let other pens dwell on misery and grief' really told in many ways.

A wonderful birthday celebration.

This review is also on OperaToday.

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