Alasdair Middleton and Jonathan Dove, after Jane Austen
Royal Northern College of Music
March 26-April 1, 2023: 2 hrs 15 mins
It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that you can’t turn Jane Austen novels into opera. Acknowledged by everyone except composer Jonathan Dove and his librettist Alasdair Middleton, that is. They saw the potential in Mansfield Park, in which the quiet heroine, Fanny Price (probably the closest Austen got to a self-portrait) finds her true love despite being a poor relation in her uncle’s house and considered obstinate and unadventurous by all.
The piece is presented in its 18 chapters, each given its number and title by the ensemble of singers. There are 10 roles (with no chorus), and that makes it ideal for a music college to stage, to give its best young voices their chance to shine. The RNCM, as is its usual practice, has double-cast it.
Production is by Stephen Barlow, an in-demand director, with design by Yannis Thavoris, an in-demand designer: this was originally going to be the college’s spring opera in 2020, before lockdown intervened. It’s good they are offering it now, as it’s a delightful presentation, in true costume-drama style. It was originally (in 2011) written for performance in country houses, with the rooms and period furniture they provide as sets, so needs some imagination to shift to a conventional theatre stage, but they manage it very well.
There’s a circular acting area, with grooves in it so that while it’s a drawing room much of the time, it can also be quickly transformed by quick shifts of furniture or bits of set; other symbolic elements are flown in when needed. You get a gentleman on board a ship heading for the West Indies, a trip to a country estate and perambulations thereat, a wedding, and even a ball scene (with the performers taught to dance by Bethan Rhys Wiliam).
One puzzle is why two of the characters, Mary and Henry Crawford (brother and sister and in some sense parvenus to the rural idyll of the location), are costumed as if they’ve been with Dr Who and just beamed down from the 21st century (complete with a mobile phone). I think it may be to suggest that their morality is more like our own – but in Jane Austen’s world that was just unscrupulous immorality, and she wasn’t afraid to make the point clear.
The singing is very accomplished and the orchestral playing excellent: conductor Lee Reynolds is going places and he brings the best out in all of them. It’s not right to compare the voice qualities on display (some are more mature than others and all are there because they’re gaining experience), but the Fanny Price I saw, Morgana Warren-Jones, is both a gifted actress and a quality singer.
More info and tickets here