Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park opened last night at UoT Opera in a production by Tim Albery. It’s a really interesting show that builds up in “layers” to a very satisfying whole. The Austen novel, of course, is very self consciously a novel. There’s no pretence at “immersion”. The author is both telling the story and commenting on it for the benefit of you, the reader. Librettist Alasdair Middleton both builds on this and does a quite brilliant job of compression to bring in a condensed, and only slightly simplified, version of the story in under two hours.
One device is to have the singers; usually en ensemble, announce each chapter with its Austen heading to the audience. It’s a very simple, effective way of moving the plot along. He also often reduces lengthy dialogue to a list of nouns. Sir Thomas solemnly intones “Duty, position, propriety, reputation etc” (or something like that). The really clever bit tough is that, having spent Act 1 introducing the characters and their motivations at some length he reduces the complexities of the affairs, deceptions, betrayals and disasters of Act 2 to two brilliantly compressed scenes. In the first the characters read from letters they are writing to each other in an ensemble of considerable complexity. And it’s unaccompanied so we can actually hear the text clearly (though there are subtitles). This is followed by a scene in which everybody frenetically dissects the fatal column in the Times. In maybe 15 minutes of stage action we are made fully aware of what has happened and the denouement of the quiet clerical marriage of Fanny and Edmund now seems natural and inevitable.
Albery and his creative team add a further layer of entirely fitting artificiality to the mix. At a couple of key moments elements of Austen’s text are projected. Much of the rest of the time the stage is decorated with projections of books or Regency era engravings and the drawing room furniture does multiple duty as landscape elements. The costuming is intriguing too. We open with everyone in modern dress reading a copy of the Penguin edition of the novel. Only Sir Thomas is in period costume. This gradually changes. By the beginning of Act 2 everybody is in period dress but then for the final scene it’s back to modern dress except for Fanny and Edmund (and, of course, Sir Thomas). This is not in any sense naturalistic theatre but rather a (Brechtian?) construct that makes the audience complicit with librettist, director and singers and, ultimately, Jane Austen.
Supporting all this is Jonathan Dove’s colourful and inventive score. He uses a small band of a dozen players and sets quite a lot of the text with minimal accompaniment. At other times he uses the full resources of the instruments to create a sound world that is distinctive, interesting and really quite accessible with only a few moments of rather filmic “here’s what to emote now”. Perhaps the music for the band is more exciting than most of what the singers get but that’s largely because the sung line tends to privilege the text. There are no big arias but Mary Crawford, appropriately, gets a few showoff moments. The ensembles are brilliantly crafted. I’ve heard few modern operas that can bring off ensembles with eight, nine or ten singers but Dove does.
The cast is uniformly extremely good; especially when one considers that this is a student production of a non too easy modern opera. One need make no allowances for their relative inexperience. Renee Fajardo has the perhaps unenviable job of portraying one of the least sympathetic heroines in literature and she doers a fine job. It’s a restrained, sympathetic performance that wins our sympathy entirely. Much the same can be said for Corin Thomas-Smith who sings strongly and rather beautifully as Edmund and, again, makes a potentially unsympathetic character come to life.
Midori Marsh is a suitably conniving and flighty Mary Crawford and makes the most of the few odd moments she has to show off some gleaming top notes. River Guard,
is her brother; the bored slightly rakish Henry. If he has, much of the time, a tendency to look as if he’s just about to jump off Westminster Bridge, it serves him well here. The nearest thing to comic relief is Elias Theocharidis as Mr. Rushworth. It’s actually quite a restrained performance (for him!) but very funny on occasions and clearly sung. This is very much an ensemble piece though and the rest of the cast; Adam Kulack and Alexandra Fee as the senior Bertrams, Saige Carlson and Lindsay Connolly as the sisters and Julianna Krajčovič as Aunt Norris all play their parts well as individuals and members of the ensemble. Diction, across the board, was clear, precise and period appropriate. Sandra Horst conducts to good effect. The complex ensembles are clearly articulated and the varied colours of the score emerge most effectively.
This is a top notch show in every respect and no allowances need be made for it being a student affair. It’s a classy, intelligently designed and directed production of an opera that deserves to be widely heard. It may also be about your last chance to see live opera in Toronto for a while alas.
Mansfield Park continues at the MacMillan Theatre until Sunday. Last night’s cast will appear again on Saturday while there are a few cast changes for tonight and Sunday.
Photo credits: Richard Lu