The Peabody Opera Theatre Performs “Mansfield Park”

The partnership between the Baltimore Theatre Project and the Peabody Chamber Opera continues to produce riveting and enchanting art, most recently manifest in the American premiere of Mansfield Park, with music by Jonathan Dove and libretto by Alasdair Middleton (other recent productions have included Guggenheim-winning Amy Beth Kirsten’s stunning character study Ophelia Forever, a production of Händel’s Giulio Cesare, and, I hesitate to add, my opera for young audiences, Ariel’s Tempest).

Panel discussion at the Peabody Conservatory: Elizabeth Kerstein and Emily Smith, moderators; Jesse Rosenthal, Assistant Professor English; Douglas Buchanan; Jonathan Dove, composer; Alasdair Middleton, librettist; Sebastian Vogt, Professor of German

Panel discussion at the Peabody Conservatory: Elizabeth Kerstein and Emily Smith, moderators; Jesse Rosenthal, Assistant Professor English; Douglas Buchanan; Jonathan Dove, composer; Alasdair Middleton, librettist; Sebastian Vogt, Professor of German

Thursday (February 12) night’s premiere was truly something special. The performance had been preceded by a number of events capitalizing on the presence of both composer and librettist on the Peabody campus, including a Sunday-afternoon panel discussion, a classroom session with the students of Peabody Theory Department Chair and opera composer Dr. David Smooke, as well as rehearsal time with the cast and crew. The panel discussion delved into compositional methods and interpretations of the text, revealing the composer and librettist’s thoughtful, faithful, and expressive approach to the material. It was immediately clear that Middleton knows his Austen through and through (there are further clever references to other Austen works in the scene titles, such as “Persuasion” and “First Impressions”), and that he took extraordinary care to highlight—not reduce—the events and relationships within the novel. Crafting Austen’s longest novel into a production lasting an hour and forty-five minutes runs the risk of reductionism, but Middleton’s clear sense of dramatic through-line, frequently rhyming text that sparkled rather than became sing-song, and careful choice of interactions to enhance characterization (rather than relying on exposition) brought the inhabitants of the stately home to new life. Dove discussed his a variety of compositional choices, including voicings: for instance, the publicly understated but inwardly emotional Fanny Price is sung passionately by mezzo-soprano Claire Weber) and is paired with the honeyed baritone voicing of Edmund, Thomas Hochla, whereas the ostentatious Mary Crawford (sung with crystal clarity by soprano Lauren Randolph) is frequently paired with her brother, Henry Crawford (a tenor, performed with musicality and great commitment by Joshua Glassman). He also discussed both the aesthetic and practical issues in setting the work for chamber performance accompanied by piano four-hands, revealing an approach that accessed elements of the music that might have been heard and performed by Austenian households. Indeed, much of the accompaniment seemed to reflect certain textures and gestures of late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century music, with the lively first half with its seeming frivolities reveled in a Mozartian energy, while Act II brought with it stormier sounds redolent of Beethoven.

In performance, the story is framed by chapter-headings, sung by the ensemble, which not only help to focus the listener’s attention and provide necessary information, but also display the creators’ keen sense of pace and timing, aided by the nimble and attentive direction of Mark Streshinsky. The opening ensemble scene developed briskly, and the comedic aspect of the work (and of Austen) were immediately recognizable: Mr. Rushworth provides a constant source of humor, though is not without genuine feeling in the performance by tenor Michael Dodge; Aunt Norris’ continual patter is sung energetically and unhesitatingly by Shayna Jones, and Lady Bertram, performed by Rebecca Roy, makes her pronouncements from her chais alongside her pug. In the third chapter, the formality of the choral chapter-heading and responses to Sir Bertram’s farewell provided the necessary interaction for the children to their lordly father (in the novel, it is mentioned that the children do not even laugh when their father is present).

The standout scene in the first act was Chapter 5, The Wilderness. Characterized by a (at first) peaceful chordal accompaniment lower in the piano with a “serpentine” trailing line high in the piano (one of many examples of Dove’s pianist orchestration that lent variety and meaning to the scenes). Following Fanny’s first “aria,” we are witness to the first real temptations to which Maria Bertram is subject (sung by soprano Natanya Washer, whose commitment to her character matched her brilliant and artful vocal tone). Dove subtly switches modes to reveal the inner thoughts of the characters (later, such thoughts appear in the form offstage singers as well): movement from cheerful Lydian to neutral Dorian until we hear a seemingly “jealous” Phrygian as Maria bemoans Henry’s attentions towards Julia.

The excitement and explorations of Act I are balance by more lengthy scenes in Act II 51KS7h570jLwhich allowed for moments of sweetness and depth, such as an “orchestral” halo for the telling cross-and-chain moment at the ball, and wonderfully paced vocal interweaving and counterpoint in a scene dedicated to correspondence. One of the most magical and haunting moments is the a capella chorus (one mustn’t forget Dove’s many luminous choral works) interjections in “Follies and Grottoes,” as Maria ultimately succumbs to temptation. As one of my co-authors for The Bedside, Bathtub, and Armchair Guide to Jane Austen mentioned: “The key to getting Austen right is to get the peril right…You have to translate it in the right way to make sure the stakes are correct.” It is the completeness of this translation—its alternation between scenes and vignettes, humor and depth of feeling, action and monologue that make the final scenes so powerful. The later scenes make use of silence more so than the rest of the opera—and this silence always seems to fall fittingly around the Bertrams. And—though I won’t reveal to much—the final scenes wherein true love is revealed feel in no way forced, but utterly organic, making the end of the opera feel as an utterly fulfilling natural outcome of the work’s trajectory.

One of the difficulties of Mansfield Park is that Fanny seems to “do” less than other of Austen’s heroines—she isn’t the matchmaker Emma, or the acerbic Lizzy—and so is a moral rock in the midst of the stormy relations. But she is not stony—and this is made clear in Dove’s and Middleton’s realization. Like all of Austen’s work, it is filled with charm, wit, sparkle, danger, love, and depth—and a commitment to all of these was in full display in this premier performance.

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Mahler and Metaphor

On Friday, January 30, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave their second of three performances of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 3. The performance served not only as a testament to the work that Marin Alsop has done with the ensemble, but also as a metaphor for the necessary work of all musicians in the 21st century, and in the North American cultural scene particularly.

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

The first two movements were particularly exquisite; sumptuous blending, careful shading, and intentionally placed raucous outbursts (particularly at the apex of the first movement, which felt infused with true Bacchanalian essence), allowed Mahler’s symphonic world to come to life. When properly realized, even Mahler’s most monstrous movements communicate through their perfectly organized—and, paradoxically—compact form. Alsop’s keen balance between the individual moments and the wider sweep allowed this, perhaps most difficult, aspect of Mahlerian wonder to shine.

The other element that demonstrated the influence of Alsop’s leadership was the phenomenal chamber work in the first movement. When I first heard the Baltimore Symphony in 2006, in a performance of Shostakovitch 11 under Yuri Temirkanov (which included a terrifying incident where one of the front desk cellos fainted), I was impressed by their power and heft. At Friday’s performance, I was astounded to hear that symphonic power balanced by the agility and tight communication of a chamber ensemble.

For me, these two elements are essential outcomes of Alsop’s work with the orchestra: balancing the large-scale form with small-scale moments, and engendering the kind of musical communication that can navigate between orchestral tuttis, chamber playing, and all shades in between.

Though these aspects were certainly present in the second movement as well, the third movement displayed a few traces of mid-symphony fatigue that is only natural in a ninety-minute composition, perhaps only noticeable because of the clarity of the opening forty minutes: a sense of effort rather than effervessence, or some slight intonation and blend issues here and there.

Jamie Barton, Mezzo-Soprano

Jamie Barton, Mezzo-Soprano

The fourth movement featured acclaimed mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who brought the text to vivid life with a glowing tone that easily filled the hall while at the same time remaining focused throughout the Nietzschian meditation—vibrato warming for expressivity, rather than existing as a de facto ornament. The fifth movement, including the Peabody Children’s Chorus and the women of Baltimore Choral Arts Society, had a few slight synchronization and text declamation issues at the beginning, but once things were up and humming (literally and figuratively—the “bim bams” were consistently bell-like and golden), the blend and effect of this Wunderhorn excerpt were superb.

The final movement seemed to settle into a sense of pervasive wonder, facilitated by a return to the chamber ideal of the opening movements. Indeed, the opening string passages called to mind the late Beethoven string quartets (the Heiligerdankgesang, in particular) in their tone, and the rapturous final moments brought the crowd to a standing ovation upon completion.

What I heard on Friday was a wonderful orchestra that is continuing to transform and tighten its potential to communicate. I believe Alsop has world-class, top-tier aspirations in mind for Baltimore, and her approach continues to elicit success. The slight baubles that could be heard are evidence not only of a necessarily human idiom, but of ongoing metamorphosis. We can learn a great deal from this: as artists continuing to create in the milieu of the 21st century, our mistakes and missteps are moments that can lead us to transform how we think, create, and practice. And by balancing what we do in the small scale and local communication with where our overall vision takes us, then we are more likely to create those musical worlds that we seek.