Heritage Opera woos Jane Austen fans with Jonathan Dove’s ‘Mansfield Park’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Jonathan Dove,  Mansfield Park:  Chamber opera in two acts, adapted from the novel by Jane Austen with libretto by Alasdair Middleton.Heritage Opera, Ashton Hall, Lancaster Town Hall, Lancashire. 5. 8.2011 (MC)

Musical Director: Chris Gill,
Director: Michael McCaffery,
Designer: Elroy Ashmore-Short,
Choreographer: Michele Hardy
Accompanists: Jonathan Ellis & Paul Greenhalgh


Sir Thomas Bertram – John Rawnsley (baritone)
Lady Bertram – Nuala Willis (mezzo-soprano)
Maria Bertram – Eloise Routledge (soprano)
Julia Bertram – Paloma Bruce (soprano)
Edmund Bertram – Thomas Eaglen (baritone)
Fanny Price – Serenna Wagner (soprano)
Aunt Norris – Brigit Rohowska (soprano)
Mary Crawford -Sarah Helsby Hughes (soprano)
Henry Crawford – Nicholas Sales (tenor)
Mr Rushworth – Darren Clarke (tenor)

Cast of Mansfield Park. From left to right, Henry Crawford (Nicholas Sales), Julia Bertram (Paloma Bruce), Mary Crawford (Sarah Helsby Hughes), Fanny Price (Serenna Wagner), Sir Thomas Bertram (John Rawnsley), Lady Bertram (Nuala Willis), Aunt Norris (Brigit Rohowska), Maria Bertram (Eloise Routledge) and Mr Rushworth (Darren Clarke). Not on photograph Edmund Bertram (Thomas Eaglen)

It was a brave decision for the small opera company Heritage Opera to commission a new chamber opera. Leading contemporary composer Jonathan Dove had felt for some time that Jane Austin’s Mansfield Park would be suitable for a chamber opera stating that when he first read the novel he heard music. One can only guess the trials and tribulations experienced to bring this fascinating project to performance. I attended the staging of Mansfield Park held in the Edwardian splendour of the Ashton Hall at Lancaster Town Hall, the fifth performance in the world première tour centering on historic and stately buildings. Given the current predilection in the country for period costume dramas the romantic Mansfield Park seems like a perfect fit.

Condensing the text of Mansfield Park, which can last around seventeen hours as a ‘talking book’, into a performance of a couple of hours must have been extremely challenging. It was Alasdair Middleton who prepared the libretto from Jane Austen’s novel and amongst the cuts clearly a great deal of the slow burning emotions and tensions of the narrative has been lost. Nevertheless Middleton has done a commendable job creating a libretto that comes across as sharply observed and endearing if somewhat lace-edged. The set by Elroy Ashmore-Short that carried throughout the production was simple and effective with director Michael McCaffery ensuring a seamlessly executed and appealing spectacle. I loved the attention to detail especially the inclusion of Lady Bertram’s pug. Overall I was left with a sense of eavesdropping on the characters as they went about their day-to-day lives.

An experienced opera composer Jonathan Dove has set the text with excellent music that is fast moving and highly accessible. Scored here for four hands using one piano the charming and cleverly understated music is engaging right from the first note. Eschewing mindless note-spinning, tellingly the score never outstays its welcome.

Well cast Serenna Wagner takes the pivotal role of the reserved Fanny Price having a personality unblemished by the privilege of high status. Secretly Fanny loves Edmund and is prepared to wait patiently for him. Convincingly sung and acted as Fanny, Wagner comes across suitably vulnerable and downtrodden; a sort of Regency period Cinderella. Blessed with a richly expressive baritone Thomas Eaglen maintains his burgeoning progress as Edmund Bertram, the prospective clergyman. Somewhat underhand and untrustworthy Mary Crawford is sweetly acted and adorably sung by Sarah Helsby-Hughes who is a model of splendid diction.

As Henry Crawford the shrewd womaniser Nicholas Sales gives a characterful performance. Entranced by the beauty of Maria Bertram the rather juvenile Mr Rushworth is engagingly played by the assured Darren Clarke. I also liked John Rawnsley as Sir Thomas Bertram for his strong, rounded tone. Noticeable in the score is the propensity of multi-voiced ensembles that were sung with a decidedly impressive unison more than once to breathtaking effect. Congratulations are in order to Jonathan Ellis and Paul Greenhalgh for their sterling work with the physically demanding piano part. The assured baton of music director Chris Gill piloted the cast through a reading of purpose and verve.

Immense credit goes to Heritage Opera under Chris Gill who delight in the score that they commissioned. Jonathon Dove’s Mansfield Park is an attractive, feel-good score that firmly holds the listener’s attention. I look forward to the company’s next production which is Bizet’s Carmen in October and November.

Michael Cookson

Production Picture © Heritage Opera

Heritage Opera website: http://www.heritageopera.co.uk/