Country house ghosts

From Grimeborn to Glyndebourne

Jonathan Dove
Arcola, London

Benjamin Britten
Glyndebourne, Sussex

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, 2 September 2011

Ever since Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy strode manfully from a pond, shirt and breeches soaking wet, in the BBC’s televised Pride and Prejudice of 1995, I have shied away from Jane Austen adaptations. With the exception of Amy Heckerling’s film Clueless, released the same year and which places Emma Woodhouse in the appropriately merciless setting of a high school in Beverly Hills, the sharp edges of Austen’s characters tend to find themselves smoothed off for the screen. So I was not optimistic about Jonathan Dove’s new opera adaptation of Mansfield Park, with Alasdair Middleton as librettist. Jonathan Dove has produced some fine work in musical theatre – his slick airport opera Flight, composed for Glyndebourne in 1998, remains a good testament to his remarkable gifts for writing music and telling stories that immediately grab the attention and hold it. It was more the context of the opera that did not bode well – commissioned by Heritage Opera, Mansfield Park was specifically composed for a tour of England’s country houses. The prospect was one of bonnets, bustles and marble halls echoing with mistuned pianos. In the event, it was sharp, brash, fast, devoid of sentimentality and blessed by the absence of the kind of “agreeable” characters whom Austen declared she spent her time trying to avoid. The music swung, though not wildly, between Bernstein and Britten, and kept the dramatic pace high. Each “chapter” (neither these nor the division into two “volumes” follow the novel) is launched with a kind of musical title page, sung either by the full cast or, occasionally, by the most relevant individuals.

The opera’s major insight is that for much of the novel Fanny Price is not a character, but rather a disappointingly thin echo for the pretensions of others. Her character is not so much developed, in the novelistic sense, as formed by the revealed deficiencies of others. For an opera composer, such a structural device is a gift, because it allows the presentation of Fanny to hover at the fringes of the musical limelight, sceptically echoing in music the postures and perspectives of others. “Fanny Price, Fanny Price” throng the chorus in a kind of battle cry, but Fanny herself remains blank – at least initially. As in the novel, she eventually comes into focus by her refusal to act in the Crawfords’ play, the mezzo-soprano in question – Serenna Wagner – rising to the challenge of presenting a finding-of-voice in Dove’s nicely pitched vocal lines. But her advantage does not last. The rowdy first act finale, celebrating Fanny’s moral constancy, is punctured by the flat call of Mrs Norris, recalling the poor relation to her duties.

Mansfield Park is not an unqualified triumph. There are moments when the attention wanders, simply, if paradoxically, because the pace is kept so uniformly high. Nonetheless, until a card-carrying modernist gives Austen the operatic treatment she deserves, Dove and Middleton’s work will do nicely. Michael McCaffery does a good job of confining the action within a small space, and Elroy Ashmore-Scott’s admirably portable set – consisting effectively of a large screenprint of Austen’s text, which acts as both backdrop and stage – works well.

Aside from Serenna Wagner’s Fanny, Sarah Helsby Hughes stood out for her portrayal of Mary Crawford, the opera’s slipperiest, most dynamic role. Much was cut from the novel, wisely, including the character of Tom Bertram (and thus the entire inheritance subplot), but Thomas Eaglen came across well as the insipid, scarcely marriageable Edmund. By the curtain, he and Wagner looked well enough suited; though to the opera’s credit, you wonder how long it will last. As Austen’s novel, rendered in Middleton’s neat and occasionally painful rhyming couplets, teaches, lovers’ vows “are often broken / forgotten almost ere they’re spoken”.

The oddest thing about Mansfield Park, a country house opera written for country houses, is that it opened London’s Grimeborn festival, which styles itself as the antidote to country house opera. Now resident at the Arcola’s new site in Dalston (great for shouting, less good for singing), Grimeborn struck lucky, managing to book the show after the planned production of Philip Glass’s Sound of a Voice was cancelled with a week to go.

Meanwhile, at the ersatz operatic country house, Glyndebourne’s festival season continued an excellent run with its final summer production: a revival of Jonathan Kent’s production of Britten’s Turn of the Screw of 2006. Like Mansfield Park, The Turn of the Screw is set in a country house. But here the characters are less brittle than the audience, not in the sense of being buttoned up (although they are, of course, this being Glyndebourne), but in the sense of being scared to death by what is a superb musictheatrical tour de force.

The success of this Turn of the Screw, conducted here by Jakub Hr+ša, the music director of Glyndebourne’s touring wing, derives from three factors. The first is that Kent does not shy away from presenting things directly: there is no ambiguity about the nature of Quint and Miss Jessel’s current and former interest in Flora and Miles; there is some but not much ambiguity about the Governess’s grasp on reality, and hence complicity in the death of Miles; and there is no attempt to brush the ghosts into the shadows – they are, after all, manifestly present to the audience as singers on the stage, and any successful director must simply grasp the nettle. But Kent’s directness has the advantage of allowing the air of unfathomable mystery, so central to Henry James’s novella and its unreliable narrator, to re-establish itself in the minds of the audience. A staging that leaves everything too open runs the risk of the audience wondering, simply, what the director was intending. Here, by contrast, we simply wonder what happened, how and why. The mystery runs deeper into our imaginations, and our nervous systems.

The second factor is that the staging is breathtakingly beautiful. This extends both to its painterly but minimalistic tableaux and to the fluid dynamism of the stagecraft. Indeed, while formal ballet would be entirely out of place in a chamber opera of the kind Britten envisaged, Paul Brown’s sets create a ballet all of their own. Thanks to two circle sections which rotate around a central, suspended window frame – which itself pirouettes and arabesques with effortless grace – the frequently changing scenes seem to dance into place, the movement of the props mirrored by the entrance and exit of the characters. Nor are these gestures purely aesthetic: each movement refers economically to the unfolding story, such as the suspended branch which, in the first act, demarcates the outside from the inside of the central window but which, in the second, reinforces the sense that outside and inside have lost their purchase on the representation. Other details are more local but just as effective. Flora’s opensided doll’s house circles round to the back of the set, where its front elevation is revealed as Bly itself. For the lake scene, its lights twinkle weakly across the glass that now lies on the stage, raked just enough for us to see the face of Miss Jessel pressed beneath it.

The third factor is, of course, the music. Britten’s score is a masterpiece of economy, and the greatest latter-day exemplification in opera of the eighteenth century’s chief aesthetic virtue of diversity within uniformity. The tonal material is tightly knit – famously, Britten uses devices derived from twelve-tone serialism – and yet the contrasts of mood and colour in Act One generate sufficient energy to propel the second act’s trajectory with chilling momentum. Hr+ša kept the ensemble and singers pin-sharp at all times. Britten’s music glowed with a cold light.

The casting, too, was impeccable. Miah Persson judged the rising desperation to perfection, not by singing less beautifully but by letting the occasional hint of mania filter through into her voice and body language. In a nice touch, she writes the letter in the dark.

Toby Spence and Giselle Allen both impressed as Quint and Jessel, while Thomas Parfitt was outstanding at conveying the depth of Miles’s confusion, as well as his outward arrogance. Joanna Songi sang Flora in 2006. Her voice is of course different now, but clever acting and direction revealed this to be a wise choice, refocusing interest – as Britten intended – on Flora by showing her as an adolescent girl trapped in the feelings and habits of pre-pubesence. It was Susan Bickley’s Mrs Grose, however, who provided the real psychological counterbalance to Persson. For it is only when Mrs Grose begins to lose her grip on the proceedings that the full force of James’s mystery begins to be felt. Sympathetic and superbly anchored, Bickley took little time to remind us why she remains one of the country’s finest character singers.

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