Mansfield Park, a Cautionary Tale

Review of the Peabody Opera’s US Premier of ‘Mansfield Park’ by Malka Herman

If Fanny Price had gone to college, she would have been that girl who called the police every time her neighbors threw a party. I will never understand how Jane Austen, the author who created feisty Elizabeth Bennett and the painfully honest Emma Woodhouse, also penned this party pooper.

Mansfield Park is the tale of Fanny Price, a shy girl with a strong moral sense. When her ditzy cousins put on a play as an excuse to flirt with their guests, Fanny refuses to take part. When the dashing and incorrigible Henry Crawford makes her an offer of marriage, she refuses because she disapproves of him. She suffers the cruelty of her aunt, uncle, and cousins in silence. She falls in love and eventually marries the only person in the book as boring as she is, her saintly cousin Edmund. Ugh.

God knows why, but when composer Jonathon Dove came across the novel he claims, “I heard music.” He decided to partner with librettist Alasdair Middleton and pen an opera of Mansfield Park. With the same fascination I reserve for clips of shark attacks and car crashes, I attended this opera at the Baltimore Theatre Project that played from February 12-15.

From the Baltimore Sun
From the Baltimore Sun

As a Jane Austen adaptation, Mansfield Park Opera falls short, but as an opera it succeeds on some level. There is a cast of just ten singers accompanied by a single piano, a similar set up to Regency performances. Jane Austen herself would have attended similar acts that were executed in stately drawing rooms of upper-class families. The music is lush and sweeping. Although Dove claims that opera is extremely different from musicals, it is reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, especially during Austen’s “wilderness scene” where the relationships between characters take on a sinister tone.

The young Peabody actor/singers do the music justice. Natanya Washer who plays Maria, Fanny’s cousin, creates a complex villain, who is also a victim to her family’s pressure to marry a man she doesn’t love. She channels George Eliot’s Gwendolyn with a bit of High School Musical’s Sharpay mixed in. Rebecca Roy playing Lady Bertram (Fanny’s aunt) is hysterical, spending virtually the entire opera sitting on her ass singing about her pug dog and ignoring everyone else.

Despite the high quality of the opera, I am disappointed in the performance but not for the reasons I thought I would be. The problem is not with the characters or the storyline, but the lack thereof. By turning Jane Austen’s 500-page novel into a two-hour opera, Dove and Middleton hacked apart the novel, turning it into something more like a novelization which jumps from climax to climax without nuance or transitions. During the opera I cannot hate Fanny Price, because she is not the same Fanny Price Austin created. I can no longer hear her judgmental inner thoughts or appreciate the length of time she spends spinelessly accepting her family’s cruelty and this erases much of who she is.

The opera would have achieved the novel’s nuance if it focused more on the dynamics between characters and less on the most dramatic scenes. This would have helped the relationships develop naturally instead of abruptly. For example, in the play Fanny’s connection with Henry Crawford feels contrived and static. However, in the novel it evolves – even though Henry originally means to seduce Fanny he actually falls in love with her and this character complexity is an essential arc of the plot. In the opera his interest appears so shallow and so temporary that I don’t doubt for a second that she will end up with Edmund.

As Jane Austen writes at the end of Mansfield Park “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.” Pens. Not Composers.

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Venue Information:

Mansfield Park
Peabody Chamber Opera
Thursday Feb 12- Sunday Feb 15
The Theatre Project
45 West Preston Street
Baltimore, MD 21201 

Malka Herman is a Baltimore based writer with an unhealthy interest in music, theater, and art that makes her uncomfortable.

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