Mansfield Park

Lynne Lancaster

An elegantly performed opera of Jane Austen's novel.
Mansfield Park
Mansfield Park, 2016. Photo by John Kilkeary.

Operantics bring to the stage this striking unusual version of Mansfield park.

This is the first opera version (perhaps more correctly defined as a chamber opera) of any of Austen’s novels. It has been performed both in the UK and the US and now comes to Australia.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Fanny Price is the poor, overlooked niece of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, who is raised in the midst of privilege at Mansfield Park alongside her wealthy cousins. Quietly in love with her clueless cousin, Edmund, Fanny is neglected and bossed by nearly everyone, and often treated unkindly by her Aunt Norris. With the sudden arrival of the charismatic Henry Crawford and his charming sister, Mary, Fanny observes from the sidelines as seductions, intrigues, shocking scandal and indiscretions cause upheaval, threatening the peace of the family.

Under Joseph Restubog’s sure direction, the underlying clash of morals (nouveau-riche opportunism contrasted against old Tory decency) is clearly presented. Particularly in Act 1 there is a great deal of movement and bustling about and the choreography, where required, is very formal and stylized.

Staging is minimalist with a few garden seats, a framed archway, chairs and tables, etc, which allows for fluid scene changes. The lighting by Fenella Jolly is sensational, at times warm and golden, others richly dark and dramatic.

It is performed in elegant period costume and there is fine ensemble work throughout. Vocally it was magnificent. Musically it is written for four hands on a piano. Dove’s quite difficult score is very contemporary in style, quite often sharp and spiky and was given a tremendous performance by the two pianists (Nathaniel Kong and Geena Cheung) who played with zest and enthusiasm. There are hints of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Britten and Sondheim and even perhaps Lloyd Webber. Under the precise, refined energetic conducting of Kieren Brandt-Sawdy the work was given a passionate, elegant and thoughtful performance.

Middleton uses Austen's text for the libretto extensively, but condenses the plot with clever ensemble singing for strong narrative drive and omits some characters and events. For example, there is no mention of Fanny’s Portsmouth origins or her return. The ensembles sparkle with style and wit. There is a section on landscape gardening wonderfully sung and arias based around amusing subjects such as the ambition to have a barouche. When the more serious, intense parts of the drama do occur the music is very moving. 'Chapter Five, In the Wilderness' a crucial turning point in the opera is an example of this.

As Fanny Price Sonya Hollowel gives our leading lady an atmosphere of being grounded and wise but innocent all at once. As dangerous relationships develop the lively melodies evolve into something much darker, and Fanny gets to vocalize some of her shyness and heartbreak. Bearded, mustachioed Tristan Entwistle gives a charismatic, dynamic performance as the thoughtful,rather serious Edmund and he was in terrific voice.

Samanta Lestavel and Daniel Foles were deliciously manipulative as the scheming Crawfords. Levastel was darkly lustrous and elegant like a magnolia. Tall Spencer Darby added some perfectly timed comedy as Mr Rushworth,clumsily dashing hither and thither. Kate Miller-Crispe as blonde ringleted Maria Bertram was enchanting like a Botticelli Venus.

We see the three older characters, the bearded, stern yet benevolent Sir Thomas played by Ian Warwick, Jermaine Chau sings splendidly as the expensively elegantly dressed, unhurried Lady Bertram, who adores her black pug dog, and the rather catty and malicious interfering gossip Mrs. Norris - they are all strongly characterized by the music and distinctly brought to life.

At times, you are acutely conscious that you're listening to a modern opera, then suddenly the music flows into something altogether more lush and romantic (such as in the 'Chapter Six, Music and Astronomy'). Underpinning the whole opera are the delightful small choruses, some sung acapella, which reunite the plot and cast in bursts of joyous singing. By 'Chapter Seven all ten characters are on the set together and the narrative is concluded. A very clever opera.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Mansfield Park, The Opera

Artistic Director and Production Manager - Katie Miller-Crispe
Artistic Advisor - Tristan Entwistle
Music Director and Conductor - Keiren Brandt-Sawdy
Director - Joseph Restubog
Assistant Director - Paul Chegwidden
Piano - Nathaniel Kong and Geena Cheung
Production Assistant and Set Design - Emily Stuart-Jones & Ian Warwick
Costume Design - Ian Warwick and Victoria Parsons
Sonya Holowell, Jermaine Chau, Ian Warwick, Katie Miller-Crispe, Amy Balales, Tristan Entwhistle, Jessica Harper, Samanta Lestavel, Daniel Folesi, Spencer Darby

Mansfield Park the opera runs at the Independent Theatre April 20-24 2016

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.