The grandiose architecture of The Grange was a fitting place to stage this new operatic production of Mansfield Park celebrating Jane Austen’s 200th and extending The Grange Festival’s successful 2017 season, as was the spectacular four thousand acre parkland location within Austen’s beloved Hampshire. You could quite easily believe yourself to be at Mansfield Park, a good premise for a production strong on design (Dick Bird).
Originally commissioned by Heritage Opera in 2011 with just a piano duet accompaniment, The Grange Festival seized the opportunity of asking Jonathan Dove to compose a more ambitious orchestral version, not so much evocative of Austen’s day as his own ethereal style. Librettist Alasdair Middleton may believe this to be the only Austen work suited to an operatic adaption due to the heroine, Fanny Price (Martha Jones), being an internal character, but the challenge is conveying the subtleties and appeal of such a meek woman as soon as you bring song and choreography (Mandy Dementriou) into it. If you didn’t know the book you might be forgiven for missing that Fanny was the leading lady for at least the first few scenes, something director Martin Lloyd-Evans might have picked up on and given more clarity.
With the aid of a revolving set and countless scene changes, we rattle through Fanny’s life with her wealthy relations at a fair old lick; liking her well mannered cousin Edmund (Henry Neill) and loathing her pretentious aunt Lady Bertram (Sarah Pring) in equal measure. Whilst the novel is neither comic nor tragic and possesses moments of both, the more humorous elements proved essential in bringing this operatic costume drama to life, making Lady Bertram, with her pug glued to her lap, far more lively on the boards than the page.
Middleton utilised around a third of direct quotation from the novel whilst adding new text intended to be seamless, but although he undoubtedly has a good handle on the more entertaining moments within the tale, what didn’t make sense was incorporating each chapter and volume number into the lyrics, a pointless and annoying interruption to the flow of the drama. This work, not exactly faithful to the novel anyway, should at least be brave enough to stand alone, and without the need to remind us of its origins every five minutes.
A work which Benjamin Britten considered and dismissed adapting, it is hard to imagine this Mansfield Park as anything other than a work that might be revived every landmark Jane Austen anniversary. Too high-brow and not sentimental enough to win the hearts of the musical-loving West End crowds were it to transfer to London, nor intent or passionate enough to satisfy the oft-condescending opera-going fraternity, I fear it is destined for short-lived appeal. Perhaps this is the reason it was merely an extension to this year’s Grange Festival and limited to only two weekend performances.
That said, it was fascinating to see a new take on this popular Austen classic, and there was much about it to applaud, not least David Parry, conducting the 13-piece Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with a lightness of touch, and the ten-strong cast, several of whom – mezzo Martha Jones as Fanny, baritone Henry Neill as Edmund Bertram and soprano Shelley Jackson as Mary Crawford – elevated it to the quality production The Grange Festival were aiming for.
Mansfield Park was performed at The Grange Festival on 16th and 17th September 2017. For information on The Grange Festival’s 2018 season please visit their website. Production images by Robert Workman.