Turning great novels into opera isn't a new idea - consider Prokofiev's War and Peace or Massenet's Werther - but it can be a tricky business: opera thrives on pace and high drama, while the greatest novels have time and space for reflection and character development. So it's a brave move for Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton to have tackled Jane Austen's Mansfield Park - four hundred pages or so of comedy of manners which glories in the acute observation of its characters and the societal norms which they inhabit.
But to my mind, Dove and Middleton pull it off admirably, using some unusual devices to great effect. The opera is divided into named "chapters" whose subtitle is sung to the audience with relish and humour, which serve to frame the story. At one point in Act II, our maligned heroine Fanny sits on her park bench in the middle of the stage while action revolves around her; later, when a lot of narrative needs to be covered in a short space, four singers are on stage reading and writing letters. As a result of these tricks and others, we learn everything we need to know about the characters in the space of just a couple of hours, in a way that truly captures the spirit of Austen's writing.
I thoroughly enjoyed Dove's music. My most common complaint about contemporary opera is that the music is harsh, discordant and wearing on the ears; the response of contemporary composers would be that you can't just carry on writing as if it were still the nineteenth century. To my mind, Dove squares that circle: he may not be a tunesmith (you don't come out singing any of the numbers), but his music is thoroughly melodic and lovely to listen to without in any way sounding old fashioned or passé. Throughout the evening, I was struck again and again by the sheer beauty of the vocal lines, the richness of musical texture and, most of all, the excitement generated by his contrapuntal writing in many of the ensemble numbers: the bulk of the opera is sung by groups of the performers from duet to octet.
Mansfield Park is a chamber opera scored for piano four hands and ten singers, commissioned by Heritage Opera to be performed in a Northamptonshire country house - in other words, pretty much on location. I realise that although I've seen plenty of opera on small stages, this is the first time I've seen an opera actually purpose-designed for the chamber format; previously, I've only seen cut down versions of full scale operas. The difference is most tangible in the way Dove uses the piano to get a huge variety of effects: percussive, rolling, lyrical. It made me think of the comparison between listening to the orchestral and piano versions of Pictures at an Exhibition: Ravel's orchestration is a splendid piece of work but ultimately an unnecessary one, because all the colour you might want is already there in Mussorgsky's piano original. Plaudits should certainly go to pianists Chad Kelly and Emily Senturia, who played vividly and excitingly.
I doubt that anyone will accuse Dove of being kind to his singers: this seemed like challenging stuff, highly varied and requiring extremes of vocal agility from everyone. Royal Academy Opera produced a generally strong cast of young singers who, broadly speaking, coped with everything that was thrown at them. But the Jack Lyons Theatre is quite a large space for a chamber work like this, and there were some problems with diction: like Austen's prose, this opera relies on the use of language, and I frequently lost the words. Still, all of these voices had good, warm timbre and blended beautifully in the ensemble numbers. One in particular stood out: Aoife Miskelly as Mary Crawford matched power, smoothness and agility in coloratura, giving us several "wow" moments on pure quality of voice. As her rakish brother Henry, Samuel Furness was the pick of the male singers, clear and expressive.
Acting was strong, with Rachel Kelly outstanding in the role of Fanny Price, giving us the surface mousiness of the put-upon ward combined with the inner steel and obstinacy. Director John Ramster asked a lot of his cast in the way of highly complex movement around the stage and while the results were short of perfection, the overall effect was achieved. The production overall was thoroughly faithful to the book - perhaps to a fault. I will no doubt anger Austen fans by saying that I find the ending to Mansfield Park rather limp: Austen ties everyone up into an impossible knot, followed by which Edmund has a sudden change of heart and everything ends happily ever after. Dove's opera suffers from the same: the tension ratchets up gloriously through the ball and letter-writing scenes in Act II, and the closing duet between Fanny and Edmund can't quite reach the same standard.
But that's being hypercritical. This production of Mansfield Park is what I want modern opera to be like: music which is inventive and beautiful to listen to, wrapped around an engaging story told with true feel for its characters - all with intelligent staging. I hope it gets many more outings.
Royal Academy of Music, Sir Jack Lyons TheatreMarylebone Road
London Greater London United Kingdom NW1 5HT