Friday, August 19, 2011

Guest blogger/spy RW reports on Mansfield Park at Grimeborn Festival, London

MANSFIELD PARK by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton
Performed by Heritage Opera at the Arcola Theatre, Grimeborn Festival, Dalston, East London on Monday August 15th 2011

It has often occurred to me that the classic novels of Jane Austen would lend themselves particularly well to an operatic setting, her pale-faced heroines wrestling with their inner emotional turmoils in much the same way as the protagonists of Puccini, Strauss, and Verdi. The same thought has occurred to that most prolific and successful of British contemporary composers, Jonathan Dove, who along with regular collaborator, librettist Alasdair Middleton, has created a most enchanting and audience-friendly adaptation of one of Austen's best-loved works, Mansfield Park.

The work is conceived as a chamber opera given in two acts, scored for ten soloists and two pianos.
The northern-UK based company, Heritage Opera, who in the last few years has successfully toured a number of small-scale productions of core repertoire works, often in reduced orchestral or pianoforte arrangements, to stately homes and heritage buildings in the north of England, has commissioned Dove to write the opera, and now present the London premiere of the work following a short UK tour earlier this month. In fact, London audiences only got their chance to see this work at very short notice, due to a last-minute cancellation in the small but enterprising Grimeborn Festival in Dalston, which just over a week ago was the scene of violent rioting in the capital. They were rewarded with an outstanding new masterpiece of lyrical and emotional beauty, at once accessible, tuneful and beautifully staged and presented by Heritage Opera, who in turn were rewarded with a well-deserved ovation from a full to bursting capacity audience and much critical acclaim.

There are occasions when one is sometimes reminded of other composers and genres in the music, but for the main part Dove's is a very individual voice. He writes in a contemporary fashion whilst still remaining true to the period and style of the narrative, and is never afraid to write a beautiful melody.
He has a splendid ally in Middleton, whose text wavers surprisingly little from Austen's original dialogue, and manages to convey the complexities and emotions of the characters in a clear and concise way to both newcomers to Austen's work and committed Austenophiles alike.

The cast of Mansfield Park
Whilst there are fine solo outpourings for the heroine Fanny Price and some delightful dance episodes (finely executed in Michael McCaffery's simplistic production with spirited choreography by Michele Hardy), Dove's real genius comes to the fore in his beautiful yet powerful ensemble writing, notably the stunning quartet that ends the first act and the concerted finale to the piece where all ten voices are joined together.

Not all of the singers are successful in getting every one of Middleton's words across - there is occasionally some rapid spitfire dialogue that is lost even in such an intimate setting as the small barn-like Arcola Theatre - but there are no complaints with the overall singing of the central quartet of Fanny (Serenna Wagner), cousin Edmund Bertram (Thomas Eaglen), and the scheming siblings Mary and Henry Crawford (Sarah Helsby Hughes and Nicholas Sales), and there is sterling support from veteran singers John Rawnsley and Nuala Willis as Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram.

Elroy Ashmore-Short's beautiful period costumes are played against a simple cloth backdrop depicting the first page of Austen's novel, and a few chairs, writing desk and white cloth-bound books providing the only props.  The valiant and unrelenting pianoforte accompaniment of Jonathan Ellis and Paul Greenhalgh is under the secure musical direction of Heritage Opera's founder, Chris Gill.

I am sure this is not the last we will hear of Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park, and I am convinced that it will follow the success that has befallen previous works, notably Flight, Tobias and the Angel, and The Adventures of Pinocchio. In fact, I would venture to suggest that this is Dove's best work to date. I, for one, cannot wait to hear it again.


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