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).
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 which 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.