I’ve been doing some research on musical projected that involve Mansfield Park since I went to see Heritage Opera’s version written by Jonathan Dove, earlier this summer.
The most interesting and intriguing nugget of information I have found is that Benjamin Britten contemplated writing a version of Jane Austen’s novel in the 1940s.
Apparently, circa 1946, it was while Britten was working at the Sussex country house opera company, Glyndebourne, on his opera, The Rape of Lucretia that John Christie, the owner, suggested that he might like to write a new chamber opera for the company which could be performed there the following year. Initially Britten and the librettist with whom he had worked on Lucretia, Ronald Duncan, were interested in writing an operatic version of the history of the medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise, or of Chaucer’s classics,The CanterburyTales, but they soon realised that neither subjects were suitable for the chamber opera format.
Benjamin Britten also wanted to write a work that would have been suitable for the English contralto Kathleen Ferrier,
but it was to another singer, the soprano Joan Cross, shown below in Britten’s opera about Elizabeth I, Gloriana,
to whom Britten was eventually indebted, for she suggested that Mansfield Parkmight make a suitable vehicle for them all, with Kathleen Ferrier perfect for the role of Fanny .
Indeed, she went to nearby Brighton to buy a copy of the novel for Ronald Duncan to read and work upon. In Letters From a Life : The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, the librettist noted that:
As usual Ben (Britten-jfw) was excited by the idea especially because the story was suitable for Kathleen with a good part for Joan too. They were both anxious to get Jane Austen’s elegant urbanity onto the operatic stage..
A hint about the form of the opera is given in its title Letters to William– which surely would indicate that the opera would be dominated by Fanny writing to William of her experiences at Mansfield Park and Portsmouth, in a scene that would probably have as much impact as that of Tatyana’s famous later writing scene in Tchaikovsky’s opera, Eugene Onegin. In November 1946 it was suggested to Benjamin Britten that John Betjeman, the poet, would be just thepersons to collaborate with on this project. Nothing came of this,,…and in factnothing came of the project at all.
Benjamin Britten wrote a synopsis of his vision of the opera and Ducnan produced a hand written libretto of Act One of Letters to William. However, Duncan was dismayed to discover that Britten had dropped the project, apparently without thinking to tell his librettist:
A couple of months later I went to London on some other business and Marion Sten told me the t Ben was already working on another opera, Albert Herring with Eric Crozier…I was dumfounded…I confronted Ben. He admitted the position, looked sheepish but gave no explanation.
A copy of Mansfield Park is still in the archive of the Britten-Pears Foundation. It is the Macmillan edition of 1926 and apparently is from a set owned by Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten’s partner and collaborator.
It contains some annotations on the characters written by Pears, and this interesting cast list written by Britten, suggesting that Britten did take the project seriously at one point:
Sr Thomas Bertram : Owen Brannigan
Lady B : Mabel Ritchie
Mrs Norris : Joan Cross
Mary C : Nancy Evans
Henry C : ?
Fanny : Kathleen Ferrier
Maria : Anna Pollak
Edmund : Peter Pears
Rushworth : ?
And so the opera never materialised. Which is sad, as with that cast and withBritten talents it would surely have been a fascinating addition to the repertoire.
One last interesting snippet. The relationship between John Christie and Benjamin Britten was awkward for while John Christie was impressed by his talents, he did not approve of Britten’s homosexualtiy. John Christie’s wife, Audrey was on more cordial terms with Britten, and was reported to have been absolutely delighted when he told her, in the first flush of enthusiasm for theobject that her beloved pug would be appearing in the opera as LadyBertram’s gender confused pet!