It's extremely rare to see a small opera company commission a brand new work, but that's exactly what Heritage Opera, who regularly present chamber operas in the north-west of England, have done. They are currently touring the world première of Mansfield Park after fund-raising efforts allowed them to invite celebrated composer Jonathan Dove (The Enchanted Pig, Flight, The Adventures of Pinocchio) to fulfil his life-long dream of composing an opera based on the Jane Austen novel.

© Heritage Opera
© Heritage Opera

Mansfield Park tells the story of Fanny Price, a young girl with a strong moral compass who is sent by her impoverished parents to live at the home of her wealthy uncle Sir Thomas Bertram and his family. Unable to relate to her superficial female cousins and treated as an outsider in many ways by her adopted family, Fanny forms a strong attachment to Edmund, the youngest Bertram son. Her love for him is threatened by the arrival of brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford, glamorous visitors to the neighbourhood with romantic intentions of their own. Dove has wanted to turn the book into an opera since he first read it, hearing music as he turned each page and feeling that Fanny Price would make a perfect operatic heroine. “Her reticence invited the music,” he has written of the first sparks of his inspiration. Many years down the line, his ideas for Mansfield Park have become a reality, and the result is a very engaging and clever opera.

Composed with small, stately home performances specifically in mind, audiences get the opportunity to witness a proper chamber piece that is designed for the space it's in, rather than the pared-down operas that small companies are often forced to squeeze into less than appropriate surroundings. It's more than just a matter of size, though- a Jane Austen novel is the perfect inspiration for an opera that will be performed in the halls of English country houses. All of the venues on the Heritage Opera tour help to blur the lines between fiction and reality, becoming part of the backdrop for Mansfield Park and occasionally leading us to forget that we're seeing a brand new opera rather than an after-dinner performance of the kind Jane Austen would have been very familiar with.

This blurring of reality and fiction is employed by the composer, director and designer throughout. Although the opera is staged in a very appropriate and obvious setting, the actual Elroy Ashmore-Short designed set resembles a huge copy of the novel. All of the action takes place on the oversized black and white book, it's pages spilling into the audience space, its edges piled up with blank paperbacks. The opera itself is divided by Dove and his librettist Alasdair Middleton into chapters rather than scenes and acts, with each new chapter announced by the cast, playing with the naturalism that the stately home surroundings lend it. It's a very witty, Austen-like approach to something that, if done with too much of a focus on realism, may have seemed a little twee.

Middleton has used a lot of Austen's text for the libretto, but the plot is sped up with clever ensemble singing and the omission of some events and characters (Fanny never makes it back to Portsmouth, and the elder Bertram son, Tom, doesn't appear). It's pretty pacey and sparkling, and much of it is laugh out loud funny, with a whole section on landscape gardening sung to perfection and arias based around amusing subjects such as the desire to own a barouche. When the more serious, intense parts of the drama do occur the music is deeply affecting. 'Chapter Five, In the Wilderness' is a great example of this and a key turning point in the opera. As dangerous relationships are formed the sprightly melodies evolve into something much darker, and Fanny gets to vocalize some of the heartbreak and reticence that originally inspired Dove.

Leeds-born soprano Serenna Wagner is very compelling in the role, creating an air of innocence but seeming wise and grounded at the same time. There is an interesting dark timbre to her voice that suits the character's periods of introspection very well and combines beautifully with the smooth toned baritone of Thomas Eaglan, who plays a thoughtful, serious Edmund Bertram. Sarah Helsby-Hughes and Nicolas Sales are deliciously manipulative as the Crawfords and Darren Clarke provides perfectly timed comedy as Mr Rushworth, but on the whole Mansfield Park is an ensemble piece and there are no weak links in the cast.

The score is really the star of the show, though. Dove has said that he hopes it will “suggest to twenty-first century ears something of the early nineteenth century” which it certainly does, but it's far from being a pastiche of the music of Austen's age. At times, you are very aware that you're hearing a modern opera, then suddenly the music flows into something altogether more lush and romantic (such as in the gorgeous 'Chapter Six, Music and Astronomy'.) Underpinning the whole opera are the wonderful small choruses, which continually bring the cast and the story back together in joyous, moving bursts of beautiful, harmonious singing. By 'Chapter Seven, Chapter the Last' when all ten characters are on the set together and the story is resolved, their sound combines wonderfully with the purposefully small space. Powerful, multifaceted and stirring, it provides an extremely satisfying end to a very clever opera that will no doubt prove to be extremely popular with small opera companies and wider audiences the world over.