It is a truth universally acknowledged that the novels of Jane Austen are classics of their kind; their enduring appeal deriving as much from their comic wit as their social commentary. Jonathan Dove’s chamber opera Mansfield Park was originally commissioned by Heritage Opera and this new orchestral version was commissioned by The Grange Festival to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Austen and the inaugural season of this new company – situated just a few miles from the author’s birthplace at Steventon. Mansfield Park has the distinction of being the first completed operatic adaptation of any Jane Austen novel to be staged.

Martha Jones (Fanny Price) and Grant Doyle (Sir Thomas Bertram) © Robert Workman
Martha Jones (Fanny Price) and Grant Doyle (Sir Thomas Bertram)
© Robert Workman

To a libretto by Dove’s regular operatic collaborator Alasdair Middleton, Mansfield Park was first given at Boughton House, Northamptonshire in 2011 by Heritage Opera (which specialises in taking opera to stately homes and historic buildings) in a performance conceived for a cast of ten singers and four hands at one piano. The idyllic surroundings of Grange Park, with its Greek revival architecture, was an ideal choice for this staging where its theatre is well-suited for Dove’s modest forces; just 13 players (string quintet, single woodwind, two horns, piano and percussion).

The composer has an impressive back catalogue of stage works (at least a dozen operas) and plenty of experience in writing for reduced orchestral forces as his downsizing of Wagner’s Ring Cycle suggests. But this is not Wagner, and at two hours and thirty minutes (with a twenty minute interval) Mansfield Park is obligingly compact and its direct and approachable musical language bears comparison with Benjamin Britten who himself once considered setting Mansfield Park and even imagined Kathleen Ferrier as Fanny Price, the novel’s Cinderella-like heroine. 

Much of the urge to compose Mansfield Park came, so Dove claims, from the pained silences of Fanny Price. Removed from the poverty of her own family, she has gone to live in the palatial home of the wealthy Sir Thomas Bertram where she negotiates her way through high society and wins the hand of the man she has loved all her life. It is Fanny’s reticence Dove asserts that “invited music, a way of revealing those hidden emotions”.

Shelley Jackson (Mary Crawford), Henry Neill (Edmund Bertram) and Martha Jones (Fanny Price) © Robert Workman
Shelley Jackson (Mary Crawford), Henry Neill (Edmund Bertram) and Martha Jones (Fanny Price)
© Robert Workman

If the turbulent, pulsing rhythms in the orchestral score are anything to go by then Dove succeeds. While the music teems with energy, its exuberance, especially in the first part, “Volume One”, arguably reflects more the youthful vitality of the Bertram children (reduced here from four to three) than the inner emotions of Fanny – who is essentially a passive character but with an unyielding moral backbone. Dove, Middleton and producer Martin Lloyd Evans have gone for laughs in this adaptation, diluting Austen’s biting wit with comic lines like “nothing fatigues Pug like a view” from Lady Bertram whose essential languor was played down by a vocally robust Sarah Pring. Jeni Bern as Mrs Norris, one of the most disagreeable characters in any Austen novel, never quite drew our loathing, but the rich baritone of Grant Doyle as the stern but kindly Sir Thomas Bertram was well caught.

Of the younger characters, Henry Neill was an amorous Edmund Bertram with a pleasing baritone and Oliver Johnston brought out the buffoon in Mr Rushworth while also conveying one of the production’s few serious lines in “perhaps matrimony is never what people suppose it is”. Emily Vine, Angharad Lyddon and Shelley Jackson all sang with conviction and Martha Jones was a persuasive Fanny Price who gave an emotionally controlled performance with plenty of colour and warmth in her lyrical mezzo.

Sarah Pring (Lady Bertram) © Robert Workman
Sarah Pring (Lady Bertram)
© Robert Workman

Period costumes and a no-frills but Regency set on a revolving stage from designer Dick Bird were nicely observed and the whole subtly lit by Howard Hudson. David Parry drove this sparkling score forward with ease and drew polished playing from members of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Trinity Laban.

Within this richly melodic score there are many attractive individual solo numbers and ensemble pieces, (notably the closing anthem to love) and which give superb opportunities to emerging young artists, and in these terms Mansfield Park is finely-judged.