When Jonathan Dove adapted Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park into an opera, one of the major challenges he must have faced was how to use the world’s most passionate art form to illustrate the delicate nuances of strained love affairs, stiff upper lips and snobbery. Mansfield Park is by no means Austen’s best work, and that in itself is probably due to the myriad of main characters that can make the plot difficult to follow. Yet, tonight, I have to admit that it worked; it takes a medium like opera to let the characters’ monologues and dialogues weave in and out of the plot seamlessly, letting the gossip and scandal escalate while staying loyal to Austen’s world of delicate social sensibilities.
It goes without saying that the Durham Opera Ensemble should be lauded for choosing such a difficult opera to perform. They have set themselves a lot of challenges this year – putting on Carmen at the Gala Theatre was nothing short of a triumph – and instead of taking it easy and enjoying post-exams Durham they decided to pick a contemporary opera with no cast recordings and a quirky score that often verges on Sprechgesang. With only a piano accompanying them – played with four hands by the inimitable Will Ford and Josh Ridley – their ability to consistently tune and harmonise is testament to DOE’s solid musicality.
The plot itself follows the trials and tribulations of the members of the Mansfield Park household, which features a delightful little pug that lamentably only appeared in a couple of scenes. Emily Barnes made a splendid DOE debut as Fanny Price, brilliantly portraying the downtrodden protagonist who never seems to get the upper hand until she rather inexplicably becomes Henry Crawford’s flavour of the week; indeed, Sam Kibble served a dashing Henry, and if his bolshy high notes weren’t enough to make him a tenor heartthrob then his hair more than made up for it. His character was perfectly complemented by Tom Brooke’s wimpy Mr Rushworth; for someone who declares he hates acting, Brooke’s comic timing was that of a seasoned professional and he was the standout actor of the night by a country mile. Florian Störz also had real gravitas, and his English accent was absolutely remarkable given that he’s actually an Erasmus student from Heidelberg. It was complimented well by Chloe Burrows’ magisterial mezzo, and I look forward to seeing her take on more principal roles over her time at Durham.
Claire Ward’s sparkling coloratura made me all the sadder that Durham will be losing a real jewel in its musical crown when she graduates this year and leaves for bigger things on a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music to continue her vocal studies. Her interpretation of Mary Crawford was charming, and I was, ultimately, more invested in her character by the end of the opera than I was in any of the others. This is also to do with the extremely random unravelling of events right at the end of the opera; a love affair and a rogue proposal seem to have made no impression on any of the characters who gather together for the predictable marriage of Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. But that is Dove’s fault rather than DOE’s, and I will forgive the absolute absence of character development given that reading Austen is not the most cerebral affair in the world and it’s more about enjoyment than it is about interpreting a deep moral message.
A few disappointments lay in the setting; with the Festival of Arts it must have been hard to find a venue, but the Concert Room in the Music Department has zero backstage potential and the characters coming in and out of the backdoor were very distracting. It also meant that backs were often turned on the audience or characters were blocking others, which really is a rookie error that the singers need to get out of the habit of doing. The girls far outdid the boys in terms of volume, a rare occurrence given that this year DOE have been famed for their male choruses’ gusto. A few of the actors were also quite stilted at times, to the point where it no longer reflected Edwardian stoicism and refinement but simply looked like bad acting; it’s a tricky area to negotiate, but it’s nothing that the performers aren’t capable of doing.
I hold a notorious contempt for contemporary opera, yet DOE’s performance tonight has made me completely reconsider my opinion on the subject. As her directorial debut, Hannah Cox was nothing short of impressive and her casting was on point. This is, without a doubt, one of the most polished vocal performances that DOE have ever produced and you’d be a fool to miss it.
‘Mansfield Park’ will run until Sun 19th June at the Music Department Concert Room. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Sophie Kidwell