Waterperry Opera Festival has broken new ground in its first season, opening with an ambitiously broad programme which presented four different works in four different spaces, each offering a unique audience experience, and showing a distinct facet of the genre of opera. The jewel of these four was the chance to see Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park in the period-perfect setting of Waterperry House, with the lives and loves of the noble Bertrams and scurrilous Crawfords acted out in its gracious Regency ballroom: even the composer himself couldn’t resist the chance to see how it would work, joining the audience at the opening matinee.

<i>Mansfield Park</i> © Waterperry Opera Festival
Mansfield Park
© Waterperry Opera Festival

Although expectations were undoubtedly running high, Rebecca Meltzer’s sparkling direction and a fabulous team performance from a fine young cast gave an exceptionally classy account of this vivid, amusing chamber opera. It was bright; witty; harmonious; hilarious; touching; even faintly shocking, and the energy and poise never flickered. In other words, it was pure Jane Austen. I can scarcely think of higher praise.

Dove designed Mansfield Park for country houses, so this performance was exactly at the opera’s intended scale: Waterperry House’s ballroom acoustics were ideal for solo or small combinations of voices, while full-company choral moments felt almost naughtily sumptuous. Although Dove’s score is endlessly generous with its melodies, his opera asks challenging questions of any company: it requires a large cast to produce a busy, fast-paced piece touching a myriad of moods, and given the lightning scene changes and the ballroom’s natural character, Meltzer’s production sensibly added only the simplest props (a few chairs, a letter or two, and a wonderful puppet Pug on Lady Bertram’s arm, who occasionally growled and snapped at other characters to comic effect).

The action felt unstoppably naturalistic throughout, Meltzer’s unerring eye for emotional detail clear in every scene. Superb acting across the cast allowed the pathos and emotional frustrations of Regency social mores to reverberate with us alongside the piece’s natural humour and drama. Dove’s original four-handed piano accompaniment (played by two immaculately costumed footmen, including Musical Director Ashley Beauchamp) has a dashing, pulsating energy, paying homage to the musical atmosphere of Jane Austen’s time while communicating directly with our own.

Though action focused in the ballroom, the opera was alive as soon as we entered the house. Sir Thomas Bertram was busy writing letters at his desk as we climbed the sweeping staircase to take our seats; we entered the ballroom to find a family party in full swing, with Julia Bertram serenading the party while Lady Bertram and Pug dozed, and Mr Rushworth vainly searched for his missing hat, sometimes asking us directly whether we had seen it: this production was never afraid of audience participation, involving us at regular intervals. The opera lands us in the middle of Austen’s story, and at Waterperry we were appropriately plunged straight into the life of the house: Alasdair Middleton’s spry libretto is equally interested in all Austen’s characters, not just the shy, pure-hearted heroine Fanny Price (played here with memorable intensity and grace by mezzo Flora Macdonald, carefully allowing her character to grow in presence through the story).

Milo Harries’ direct, passionate Edmund Bertram was a revelation: voiced with skill and control, yet always sounding almost conversationally spontaneous, this Edmund really lived and breathed, Harries capturing both his boyishness and the innocent idealism which attracts Fanny, but prevents Edmund from understanding his own true love all the way to the tantalising finish. Eleanor Sanderson-Nash’s sharply aware, sassy Mary Crawford was brilliantly fickle and beautifully human, while David Horton’s unctuous Henry Crawford also gave us a glimpse of the yearning for true love behind the seducer (though lust soon won out). Charlotte Hoather’s precocious, determined Maria Bertram displayed a deep and sensitive understanding of her complex character, while Sarah Anne Champion’s petulant, fatally-overlooked Julia was beautifully observed. A superb comic turn from Lawrence Thackeray as Mr Rushworth brilliantly combined silliness and pathos: I never thought Mr Rushworth would break my heart, but it turns out (in Thackeray’s hands) he can.

The developing dilemmas of the ‘young people’ were thrown into relief by three excellent portrayals of the grown-ups. Emily Gray’s sleepy, dog-obsesssed Lady Bertram, grinning indolently at life, became one of the opera’s comic powerhouses as her disconnection from reality grew ever wider – becoming even poignant at times. The worldly-wise Sir Thomas of Phil Wilcox exuded imposing command, showing the isolation of the ‘man of the world’ in the family he funds, yet exists well beyond. Andrea Tweedale’s interfering (and mellifluous) Aunt Norris seethed with satisfying outrage at every new plot twist.

Mansfield Park sparkled with wit and ingenuity from start to finish. As intimate opera experiences go, Waterperry Opera Festival’s fresh, joy-fuelled Mansfield Park sets a new benchmark of quality, vibrancy and sheer fun. Starting at this level, the bar is set remarkably high for next year’s festival.