REVIEW: Mansfield Park (NZO)

Review by Irene Corbett

[Let other pens dwell on misery]

It is on an inclement Sunday evening that the New Zealand Opera invited audience members to brave the long drive up to Settlers Country Manor, some 10 minutes from Kumeū. Originally a dairy factory, the ‘Manor’ is now a lavish wedding venue, and, between the smoke hanging in the air and the plentiful dark wooden beams, the main hall is making its best effort to transport the audience backwards in time.

The entertainment for this evening is prolific English composer Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park, presented as part of NZ Opera’s move to bring opera to unconventional performance spaces. Dove told RNZ that it was the protagonist Fanny Price’s reserved nature which compelled him to “imagine music…[as Fanny] is not exactly completely silent, but she doesn’t voice her feelings in the book…” [1]

Fanny Price’s mother married poorly, and as a result a young shy Fanny has been sent to live with her wealthier cousins, the Bertrams. Fanny (portrayed in this production by Ashlyn Tymms) is a vision of propriety and moral backbone, and the character is set in firm contrast against her foolhardy cousins Maria (Sarah Mileham) and Julia (Michaela Cadwgan). Flirtations are had, weddings are held, and, in true Austen form, moral lessons are learned.

Dove’s composition is scored for voice and piano, and is divided into chapters. The chapter titles are then sung by the chorus in a fun, meta theatrical acknowledgement of time passing and the scene shifting. It is an intimate, minimalist at times, and stylish opera, and this staging serves to heighten the intimacy between the audience and performers. A small stage the size of a drawing room is raised at the left-hand end of the hall, and a long aisle bisects the audience seating. Performers can enter the stage space from small wings or from the aisle. Being so close to the performers only increases the sense of awe felt at the power of the cast’s voices. This staging also provides the cast the opportunity to demonstrate other performance skills. Andrew Grenon, for an example, is entirely convincing as Maria Bertram’s oblivious and beleaguered fiancé Mr Rushworth. Our close proximity means each twitch of concern and Rowan Atkinson- like grimace offers considerably more comedy than the inscrutable face of a performer located 50 yards away from circle seats at the Aotea Center.

It is this same closeness, however, which reveals a limitation in the role of Fanny Price. This version of Fanny reads as plain, halting, and moralistic, rather than the quiet but strong-willed young woman of the novel. It is hard to decide whether Tymms has been directed to play the role as reservedly as possible, whether it is Tymms’ vocal performance which lacks sparkle, or indeed if it is the composition that restricts the character. Whatever the reason, Tymms’ Fanny Price is clipped, muted, and restrained to the point of fading against the more vividly painted characters of the piece. Maria Bertram (Sarah Mileham) shines in contrast – but here the part offers much more whimsy and warmth to play with, and this is reflected in a particularly bright and nimble vocal performance.

Mansfield Park rides on the current wave of Regency popularity –  as I write the Bridgerton season three release draws nigh. The combination of this staging’s intimacy, stylishness, and the modernity of Dove’s composition would have done wonders to prove to younger audiences that opera as an art form offers more than wobbling wigs and incomprehensible plots.

Much of what makes this staging so engaging is the many delightful and inventive choices Director Rebecca Meltzer and Assistant Director Matthew Kereama have made to complement Dove’s score. 

As the audience was sat square-on and level with the stage, rather than the usual mixture of angled, from below, or top-down sightlines found in a standard operatic settings, Meltzer and Kereama were afforded the opportunity to make use of the depth of the stage, or to produce visually striking formations by placing cast members on the different levels provided by set pieces/furniture. One such delight came in the formation of the much sung of barouche (a four wheeled carriage). In this the arrangement of the cast upon some dining room chairs, as well as the novel use of two twirled bonnets in the place of spinning wheels, gave the distinct impression of a vehicle rolling merrily along. It was a confection of stagecraft.

While the second act of the piece offers less quick comedy, chapters such as ‘Follies and Grottoes’ deliver scenes of exquisite beauty. Here the majority of the cast are garbed in gossamer veils and delicately arranged to represent the blurred-featured statues of long forgotten gods found in the grottoes and follies of the chapter’s title. These choices will make any lover of Austen recall the scene in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film, in which Elizabeth, upon visiting Pemberley, comes across an awe-inspiring statue of a veiled woman carved entirely from white marble. This alone would be memorable for the visual appeal of the choices, but rather than simply offer a convenient echo, the action responds to the composition. The cast, as a host of statues, sing in chorus. They intone, while veiled, harmonically complex chords which swell at points in volume, and at others are softened – so much so that the sound produced seems to be suspended in the air, like a thread of silk on a breeze.

There are some less than spelling binding moments over the course of the evening. The Mansfield Park text mentions but does not truly engage with the origins of the Bertram family’s wealth – plantations in Antigua and therefore the Transatlantic Slave Trade. When invited to attend I was deeply curious to see whether this staging would attempt, in the manner of other productions and films of the novel, to make some comment on the Bertram’s nuevo riche status. But despite performing in a venue named in such a way as to remind the audience of Britain’s colonial legacy (Settlers Country Manor), Mr Bertram’s opening and repeated lines of “Plantation, Profit, Sugar” form a jarring note of historical reality which was neither internally nor externally acknowledged. A simple note in the programme explaining that Austen’s snapshot of Regency England largely ignores the contemporary issues of classism and slavery would perhaps serve to balance reality against the growing romanticism of this period of history.  

Mansfield Park offers a fine performance and serves well to demonstrate the NZO’s ability to successfully stage the latest in internationally acclaimed operatic works. If only it could have been enjoyed by a wider audience particularly that of school groups and young people. For NZO to have produced such a wholly absorbing and sprightly production it is a shame it was such a short season. 

[1] https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/culture-101/audio/2018933042/from-marx-and-austen-to-stranded-in-an-airport-jonathan-dove-on-keeping-opera-relevant

Mansfield Park was presented at the Settlers Country Manor for two performances on the 21st of April 2024.