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Last night I was very privileged to attend the first performance of Jonathon Dove’s chamber opera, Mansfield Park, based on Jane Austen’s novel. The first performance was held at Boughton House in Northamptonshire, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleugh who were also present and were very kind hosts.

For once the English weather was kind and we arrived at Boughton on a beautifully still, warm evening.

Boughton House is, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful buildings in England, and is also in Northamptonshire, making it the perfectly appropriate place to stage an opera which is also set in that county. The Duke of Buccleuch writing in the programme noted:

Mansfield Park is coming home to its original Northamptonshire setting and although Boughton was sleeping during the regency period it is just the sort of place which might have witnessed the landscape gardening, amateur theatricals, balls and arranged marriages which Jane Austen describes with such fluency in this most moving of her novels.

I’ve waxed lyrical about Boughtons gardens before, when writing about one of the estate villages, Weekly, which was one of the locations for Pride and Prejudice (2005)( It served as Mr Collins’ Hunsford Rectory). It certainly looked stunning last night, and, prior to the performance, we were treated to drinks and canapes on the west terrace, then during the interval to more drinks in the serenely beautiful Fountain Court, with its white flowers scenting the air.

The audience was small-about 70 people – and the opera was staged in the Great Hall, the stage projecting into the audience from in front of the fireplace.

The set was simple but effective. The back drop was a white sheet printed with the opening page of Mansfield Park taken from the first edition. This material then continued onto the floor of the stage itself. The props were few- some chairs and a desk painted white- but the chairs wer also upholstered in the material printed with Jane Austen’s prose. The accompanying music was provided by one piano and four hands. Perfect for a travelling opera company and not too overwhelming in a small setting.

Heritage Opera which comissioned and performed the piece is a small opera company that specialises in performing operas in intimate settings. This is perfect for Mansfield Park, for it has always had a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere to my mind. The Bertram girls are desperate to fly the nest and the restraints  of Sir Thomas’s manner of parenting, and poor Fanny Price is effectively enslaved and has no choice where she is to reside, be it at Portsmouth or Northamptonshire.

The opera was of two acts: the scenes in Act One, or rather Volume One are set out below

and the scenes in Volume 2, here

The opera libretto very carefully  concentrated on the love story between Fanny and Edmund and the machinations of the Crawfords. As a result of time constraints some character were inevitably lost- notably William Price and Tom Bertram ( and the Portsmouth episode was omitted completely).And though Mr Yates did not appear(which was sad for meas he is one of my favourites) Julia did elope with him carrying a large Gladstone bag…. I have to say that to distill this very complex novel into  a performance of just over 2 hours in length and to address many of the important points in the novels was something I didn’t think could be done. But it was achieved last night with some aplomb and style.

I loved some of the arias for all the company, my favourite being Chapter Four, Landscape Gardening, where it was made very clear that  these changes to ye fallen avenues at Southerton were going to be made “because they could”, and the aria in Chapter Eleven,  A View of a Wedding” was very witty. The lyrics written by Alasdair Middleton, reflecting the short shrift Jane Austen gave to descriptions of weddings in her novels, reflecting her class’s dislike of parade and show :

Splendid wedding, splendid wedding: goodbye, goodbye!

The final aria “Chapter the Last” was exquisitly beautiful, a rather elegant but wistful setting of the opening of the final chapter of the book:

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.

Indeed, it was a joy to recognise many, many passages from the novel quoted verbatim. I do love it when Jane Austen’s matchless prose is not destroyed , as has been very much the case with many of the latter TV and film adaptations of her works. Here, instead, it was glorified and relished. It was also a relief  to realise that all concerned in this production were not going to inflict the heritage bonnets and breeches vision of Jane Austen upon us.  The composer Jonathon Dove in his address to the audience before the performance, made it very clear that in this novel-as we Janeites are aware- nearly everyone acts very badly most of the time. As the director Michael McCaffery writes in the programmes:

The world of Jane Austen has become a world of cliches, nice behaviour and quiet moderate manners.What we tend to forget is that her books were about real people who breathed and existed at the time,rather than remote historical figures….

I could not agree more.

And of course the internalized dialogues of Fanny Price are simply crying out to be translated into arias when she can address us, her audience, with some passion about the dreadful goings on around her, and her heart  being ripped apart, bombarded as it is with tons of strong emotions:  unrequited love, frustration and jealously. Serena Wagner who portrayed Fanny last night  was the best Miss Price I have seen on stage of film.  Not odd, or a misfit, she is the one true moral point in the whole of the machinations unfolding about her. Ms Wagner portrayed her beautifully.

John Rawnley was a wonderful Sir Thomas but my highest praise goes to Sarah Helsby Hughes as the fascinating Miss Crawford. She was a real seductress- poor Edmund hardly stood a chance once she decided she  was going to make him her target. But eventually he- played admirably by Thomas Eaglem- came to his senses. Without needing to be shaken rather hard, which is always the temptation I have with this particular character….;)

The supporting cast were rather wonderful too- Darren Clarke made a very sympathetic and amusing Mr Rushworth in his pink satin cloak. Eloise Routledge was a rather aptly vicious Maria Bertrram and Paloma Bruce a more sympathetic Julia( just as it should be). Sadly, Mrs Norris was not very prominent, and Fanny’s childhood was rather glossed over, so we had no opportunity for her evil ways to manifest themselves. But then in a performance of just over 2 hours, something had to give….

On the whole I adored this lively and bravura performance. It is on tour in the north of England for the next few weeks and if you have the chance to go- do. For you will not regret it. I hope a recoding or a DVD will be available for us all to enjoy it.

Oh, and for fans of “Pug”, rest assured he made his appearance. Almost constantly in the arms of Lady Bertram during Act One…in the shape of a stuffed plush toy!

If you go here you can listen to some extracts from the opera in an interview with the composer, Jonathon Dove, as given to BBC Radio 4’s Front Rowprogramme. The Mansfield Park piece begins about 6 minutes in, and so …enjoy!

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