Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Jonathan Dove Mansfield Park

Alasdair Middleton - libretto

Royal Academy Opera/John Ramster director
Chad Kelly & Emily Senturia piano duet/Lionel Friend conductor

18 May 2012, Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, London

Jane Austen’s third novel turned into a new chamber opera for Heritage Opera reached Dalston's Arcola Theatre at the time of the riots last summer, with the first page of the novel as a backdrop [R].
Reviews there were generally good.*

The direction by John Ramster with more elaborate staging at RAM [ensemble photo below], fluid movement (Victoria Newlyn) and evocative sets & lighting (Jake Wiltshire) were the best parts of a show which finally disappointed us and hinted at a serious decline in Jonathan Dove's musical imagination.

We had loved his Flight at Glyndebourne 1988
and in Antwerp (" an auspicious landing in Flanders")
and had successively admired
Palace in the Sky [L] ("this opera must not be allowed to disappear after just three performances!";
Pinocchio ("one recent innovation which for us should be irreversible is that of surtitles for opera - not excluding Opera in English";
Little Green Swallow ("Dove's music is pleasant and accomplished as always - - Guildhall SMD should follow the audience-driven initiative at ENO and settle for English surtitles at all performances, including operas in English");
Hackney Chronicles ("Opera for children has come a long way and Dove and Middleton have taken a heroic step in entrusting everything on stage to children of primary school age, with neither spoken text nor professional adult stiffening on stage").

Mansfield Park suffered badly at RAM from the impossibility for sopranos to get their words across in high register. Struggling to hear the text had one missing some interesting ensemble music ["the bulk of the opera is sung by groups from duet to octet" [David Karlin].

Without surtitles, the wordy text was largely lost in the theatre (in preparation I'd hastily read the first half dozen chapters of Jane Austen's novel to get my bearings, and have become completely engrossed with it !).

Lionel Friend held the often tricky ensembles together on stage and the experienced piano-duo hammered away with a will and commendable stamina, but sounded more like rehearsal pianists in the long, demanding score. Maybe Mansfield Park would work better orchestrated for a small chamber group?

I fear that Dove's formulaic manner, fresh at first and for a number of years, has become stale and - dare I say - a lot of the music sounded frankly banal. **

Peter Grahame Woolf

PS Next evening we heard the BBC R3 broadcast of Gerald Barry's raucous The Importance of being Earnest, semi-staged and well-recorded at The Barbican.

Better than the surtitles there, following the text - and Barry's cuts - was more comfortable on a Kindle at home.

No regrets for having not spent a night at the Opera; as with Mansfield Park yesterday, I was left feeling (about both) " - - the disjunction between the music and its subject matter is deliberate, and the effect uncertain- - one wonders what Wilde's play (and Austen's novel) gain by being painted in music" [A. C. in The Guardian]

* - - a very engaging and clever opera. Composed with small, stately home performances specifically in mind, audiences get the opportunity to witness a proper chamber piece that is designed for the space it's in - - Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park is the perfect inspiration for an opera that will be performed in the halls of English country houses. [bachtrack]
** Scene One of the full score is on-line for studying.


Jonathan Dove There Was a Child

CBSO chorus, youth chorus & chidren's chorus, CBSO/Simon Halsey
soprano Joan Rodgers, tenor Toby Spence

Signum SIGCD285 (51 mins Symphony Hall, Birmigham Jun 2011)

Dangerously prolific (we were greatly disappointed by his attempt to confine Jane Austen's Mansfield Park to the operatic stage - see above) Jonathan Dove’s There Was a Child is a major addition to the choral repertoire, but seems to have had only a few performances, despite great expectations that it would "surely be taken up by choral societies up and down the country" [Birmingham Post].

Set to a compilation of texts by many fine poets about young deaths in an unapologetic tonal idiom, There Was a Child is more than a memorial for a friend's son Robert van Allan [L] who died snorkelling in Thailand.

This recording of possibly its first fully professional performance is engrossing and deeply moving in its continuous 50 mins span. The poems are wonderfully chosen (c.f. Britten's flair for that) and the performance and its recording entirely compelling.

Surely one for the Proms?

Peter Grahame Woolf