Festival Director Rebecca Meltzer’s sparkling production of Jonathan Dove’s chamber opera Mansfield Park ran the gamut of every emotion: it moved the audience to tears during the rhapsodic standing ovation, and its two acts were an unbroken joy.
The elegant Regency setting of Waterperry House gave walls and windows to Mansfield Park which Jane Austen herself could not have imagined more vividly. The intimacy and domesticity of Dove’s original score, written for four hands on one piano, was brilliantly evoked by Musical Director Ashley Beauchamp and Répétiteur William Ford. Jane Black’s costumes were exquisite.
But it was the 10-strong ensemble cast of young professional singers who carried the performance, through their narrative drive and subtle characterisation of Mansfield Park’s inhabitants, as heartbreak, seduction, snobbery and scandal entered their rarified world.
In the moral triangulation of behaviours, Sir Thomas Bertram (compelling Phil Wilcox) holds overbearing sway over the household until he is called away to address poor returns on the family’s slave-produced sugar in Antigua. Younger son Edmund (a delightful Milo Harries), destined for the Church, is left as moral litmus, while impecunious niece Fanny Price (the superb Flora Macdonald) has the least power, but the clearest eyes to the folly and fall which surrounds her.
Two women – the pug-obsessed Lady Bertram (an excellent Emily Gray) and spiteful Aunt Norris (an imposing Andrea Tweedale) are no match for sophisticated siblings the Crawfords. With eyes that hook, play and land the eligible three Bertram children, they reek emotional havoc – and more importantly – compromise the Bertrams’ value in the marriage market.
Wealth, not love, as societal glue is constantly highlighted, most obviously in Mary Crawford (the glittering Eleanor Sanderson-Nash)’s rejection of Edmund. It is also found in Maria Bertram (a poignant Charlotte Hoather)’s acceptance of the good-natured pill Mr Rushworth (a nuanced Lawrence Thackeray), and Sir Thomas’ fury at Fanny Price’s rejection of louche charmer Mr Crawford (a seductive David Horton) and at Julia Bertram’s elopement (a vulnerable Sarah Jane Champion).
Alasdair Middleton’s brilliant libretto, Dove’s gorgeous combination of melody, pathos and drama and Meltzer’s superlative staging (the Wilderness, the Ball and the newspapers’ veiled revelations) and characterisation brought the audience to its feet, and Jane Austen’s little piece of ivory to new emotional heights.
‘That was better than Austen’, one audience member told me. ‘They threaded the needle to perfection.’