AT FIRST GLANCE, AUSTEN’S MANSFIELD PARK seems a poor prospect for an opera—no group of Austen’s characters is so ambiguous, so difficult to get your head and heart around. But, despite its unpromising qualities, the novel has attracted two significant composers: Benjamin Britten in 19461 and, more recently, the British composer Jonathan Dove with librettist Alasdair Middleton. As Dove told me at the intermission of the American premiere, he “heard music” when he first read Mansfield Park. Middleton wrote me that Mansfield Park is his favorite Austen text.2 The new Mansfield Park premiered in England in 2011. Appropriately for a novel set on an estate in Northamptonshire, it was first heard in a country-house drawing room, in Boughton House in that county. It is in two acts, with eleven and seven scenes (or “chapters,” as Dove calls them), lasting a total of an hour and three quarters. The opera received its first professional American performance in March 2016, ably performed by the Indianapolis Opera.
In the new Mansfield Park, Dove and Middleton have tackled head on what Middleton identifies as a particular challenge in producing a libretto from this novel—its “timescale.” As Middleton observes, “we meet and know the characters for a considerably longer time than is usual in most Austen novels” (email). The novel begins with the essential backstory of the marriages of the three Ward sisters and then relates the Bertrams’ adoption of the young Fanny. The new opera omits this history, depending on the program notes to fill us in, and also omits scenes and characters: there’s no Portsmouth and no William Price.3 But even with these omissions, this new opera is a full participant in contemporary discussions about Mansfield Park and its main character, Fanny Price.
Austenians seldom completely agree about Fanny, the chief consciousness of Austen’s “problem novel.” Is she the “heroine,” the long-suffering orphan who, against all odds, finds at last a home and true love, offering a moral center and a point of view that we can trust? Or is she, as the novel’s title might suggest, merely a part of the complex community known as Mansfield Park, only one in a multiplicity of cacophonous voices? I have my opinions on this question—but that’s not the point of this essay. Instead, I wish here to demonstrate how Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton’s new opera offers the latter interpretation, for Dove and Middleton have succeeded in capturing what the librettist has called “the formality and the ‘irony’ of the novel” (email). The opera thus creates a musical/dramatic analogue to Austen’s characteristic narrative technique: her ability to display simultaneously multiple consciousnesses within a social context.
An opera based on this novel could have worked much differently. It could have, as opera often does, grabbed us by the lapels, pulling inexorably toward overwhelming feelings: pathos as Dido dies or as Lucia goes mad, a chill as the guillotine martyrs the Carmelites, or exaltation as Valhalla burns and earth rises renewed. It might have begun with Fanny’s abjection and solitude; the action might have stopped for the solitary heroine to reflect alone about her sad existence, for her to sing impassioned arias replete with regret, old grievances, and disappointed love. But singers in the Dove/Middleton Mansfield Park are rarely alone; they achieve and reveal consciousness while practicing lines of Lovers’ Vows or combing lapdogs in public. The ten singers are all important: Dove writes no “star roles” (rather like the novel itself, in which there is no Elizabeth or Darcy). Dove and Middleton call Mansfield Park a “chamber opera,” and it recalls chamber music: it is intimate in scale, relying on two pianists at a single piano instead of a full orchestra. Though the term “chamber opera” is certainly apt, I prefer the term “ensemble opera,” for reasons that I hope are coming clear.
The first “chapter” of the opera illustrates Dove/Middleton’s ensemble technique. We are immediately introduced to characters and to action—to Lady Bertram, Aunt Norris, and Fanny Price (in Indianapolis grouped stage right) in Lady Bertram’s sitting room. Dove deftly characterizes Aunt Norris with a rising/falling half step for the words “Fanny Price,” a motif that Norris repeats incessantly. In contrast, the dampened Fanny responds with a monotone “Aunt Norris” and “Lady Bertram” (2). Then in a mere 12 bars—not long enough to be considered an aria—we learn all know and all we need to know of Lady Bertram: she praises Pug’s “lambent liquid eyes” and “soft asthmatic sighs” (3), the easy and predictable rhymes suggesting the vacuity of her nature. Sir Thomas enters, economically characterized by his first utterance, an 8-measure sequence of nouns:
Antigua. Sugar. Bristol.
Plantation. Profit. Freight.
Profit. Pride. Position.
Posterity. Estate. (4-5)
Dove/Middleton immediately shift to characters already grouped on the opposite side of the stage: Julia and Maria Bertram. (Middleton provides a quick metonym for exposition of Maria’s character and position: “I’m going to marry a country seat” .) Next, Edmund enters, walking into the middle of the stage, holding Fanny Price’s old history book, and he and Fanny begin bonding over books and memories, almost breaking into an old-fashioned operatic duet—almost but not quite, for simultaneously Aunt Norris and Julia are making unpleasant comments about Fanny’s gaucheries; the Edmund-Fanny bond deepens under the gazes of uncomprehending relatives. Meanwhile, Mary and Henry Crawford have been standing all the time at the top of the stage, observing Mansfield and humanity in their psychological messiness (just as we, in the audience—intelligent gazers opposite the intelligent Crawfords—are taking all this in).
Many Austenians will have already seen where I am going. Austen is justly praised for her technique of free indirect discourse—those quick words and phrases in Austen’s narration that dart in and out of characters’ consciousnesses, illuminating the deep recesses of subjective thought.4 Recently, cognitive brain scientists have added an additional twist to Austen’s portrayal of consciousness: intelligent readers of Austen, the science suggests, learn to follow simultaneously up to four points of view.5 The genius of Middleton and Dove’s opera is that it allows and encourages such multiple simultaneous perspectives. To an extent, of course, opera has done this since, well, shortly after Austen’s own time. In the famed Sestet (“Chi mi frena in tal momento”), the slow movement in the finale to Act II of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), listeners simultaneously follow six consciousnesses: there Lucia, her betrothed, her brother, her chaplain, her true love, her nurse all reflect on her fate (Donizetti 109-22). But this famed sequence was seen from its very first performance as a tour de force, rapturously applauded as revolutionary upon its first performance. It was a stand-out moment in a work which, on the whole, is narratologically less complex. The new Mansfield Park, in contrast, makes psychologically-astute ensembles the opera’s default mode.
Eighteenth-century epistolary fiction spurred the novel-as-a-genre’s interest in multiple consciousnesses, and Alasdair Middleton’s libretto makes use of epistolary techniques. As Middleton told me, “I have indeed read a good many epistolary novels—Clarissa, Pamela, Evelina, Belinda etc. Jane Austen was rather keen on Belinda I believe” (email). Middleton demonstrates familiarity with Enlightenment epistolarity in one particularly successful “chapter” of the new opera: “Act II. Chapter Four. Some Correspondence” (251-72). Here, Middleton’s libretto expands on the letters already in Mansfield Park’s volume 3, where Edmund and Mary both write to Fanny from London, presenting different perspectives on Maria Bertram Rushworth and Henry Crawford’s path to folly. Middleton’s scene includes a letter from the novel—Edmund’s confession to Fanny that he “‘cannot give her [Mary Crawford] up’” (Austen 422). Middleton also invents other letters, efficiently narrating off-stage action: Julia writes to Mr. Yates, revealing their growing intimacy and schemes for elopement; Maria writes to Henry Crawford, becoming ever more incautious, then precipitous; Rushworth poignantly address his new wife about his plans for improvements on his estate (he never gives up trying to please her); Henry Crawford writes to Fanny (suggesting, as do the Portsmouth scenes in the novel, the potential deepening of the relationship between the virgin and the rake). There’s even a psychologically-astute letter in the opera that its writer never sends: Maria’s confession to Henry of how miserable she is in her new marriage. In the Dove/Middleton opera, these letters are sung both separately and together, often producing simultaneous climaxes, as when at a single moment Julia determines to run away to Gretna Green, Maria decides to elope with Henry, and Edmund decides to seek Mary’s hand in marriage. Here, music and libretto achieve the simultaneity that narrative must present sequentially.
While Middleton has reproduced the narrative techniques of the eighteenth-century novel, he has also mastered eighteenth-century poetic diction. In “Chapter Three,” for example, Sir Thomas announces that
Business calls me for a while
To Antigua’s spicy isle. . . .
Commercial Zephyrs briskly blow
To where my rich plantations grow. . . .
Whilst I am away at sea,
Heaven grant you ever be
Pure in motive, pure in thought;
Always saying what is proper;
Always doing as you ought. (39-46)
Such lines could have been penned by any number of minor Augustan writers, most of whom were enamored by couplets, personifications (“Business calls me for a while”), adjectives and adverbs (“spicy,” “briskly,” “rich”), gratuitous mythological allusion (“Zephyr”), and dull preachiness (“Always saying what is proper; / Always doing as you ought”). Such intentionally banal lines, like Lady Bertram’s first utterances about her beloved Pug (3), suggest Sir Thomas’s formality and shallowness of feeling—and encourage ironic distance from characters rather than sympathetic identification with them.
The libretto is not only steeped in eighteenth-century poetry: it is also full of Austen herself. Middleton wittily gestures to her other works by naming one scene “First Impressions” (20-38) and another “Persuasion” (140-46). Some of his most striking lines are actually Austen’s: as in the novel, Henry Crawford here is “not handsome” and Mary Crawford asks, “‘Pray is [Fanny] out, or is she not?’” (Austen 44, 48); Mr. Rushworth is “accepted on too short an acquaintance” (200); Fanny announces that “‘if you were to give [her] the world,’” she would “‘not act’” in Lovers’ Vows (145); Fanny’s words about the power of the conscience—“‘We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be’” (412)—figure in her conversation and in Henry’s recollections in the opera. I did miss one line that might have been used to melodramatic effect: in the opera, at the end of Act One, when Henry Crawford is planning to court Fanny, Middleton does not use this famous line: “‘I cannot be satisfied . . . without making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart’” (229). In Austen’s novel, this expression startles us, momentarily turning the complex Henry into a simple villain. Middleton/Dove’s omission of this phrase is consonant with their overall technique: this omission maintains Henry’s ironic ambiguity, thus avoiding the immediate and strong sympathy with Fanny that these words would have created.
Like the poetry, the musical style adopted by Jonathan Dove creates ironic distance between audience and character. For this opera, Dove has updated the musical styles of two eras, the first being the late-classical music that Austen herself would have known. As Dove commented in the Indianapolis program notes, he intended to “suggest to twenty-first century ears something of the early nineteenth century.” Listeners familiar with classical era music—with Haydn, Mozart, Clementi and a host of less-well-known composers—will meet devices and genres they already know: accompaniments consisting of repeated and arpeggiated chords (generations of music students have called the latter technique the “Alberti bass”), glees,6 a sicilienne, a minuet (at Fanny’s coming-out ball), and canons (memorably in the “Music and Astronomy” sequence). The opera’s accompaniment itself also contributes to the classical aesthetic. Austen’s era—and family—loved piano duets, so Dove’s use of two players at one piano is appropriately “period.”7
The second music style that Dove channels in the new Mansfield Park is the twentieth-century reshaping of eighteenth-century classicism into neoclassicism, a sensibility that flourished between the 1920s and the 1950s, especially in France and the United States. In particular, I heard echoes of the work of two neoclassical masters: of French composer Francis Poulenc’s neoclassical jauntiness and especially of Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress (1951), a piece for which Jonathan Dove professes particular admiration (Interview).
Dove’s choice of a neoclassical musical idiom affects the way listeners feel about the opera’s characters. Neoclassical composers rejected much of the harmonic complexity of late romanticism (for example, the work of Richard Strauss or even Stravinsky’s early masterpiece, The Rite of Spring). Late-romantic chromaticism—the style to which neoclassicism reacts—had drawn listeners into individuals’ psyches and situations: think of the intense exploration of personality Richard Strauss had been able to achieve in characters such as Elektra (1903) or Salome (1905); think of the “primitive intensity” of Stravinsky’s Rite (Morgan 168). Instead of late-romantic chromaticism, Dove (like Stravinsky in his post-Rite neoclassical period) uses diatonic or—more exactly—pandiatonic harmonies. In diatonic music, the notes tend to stay within a single key once that key is established: as Dove commented to me during the intermission at Indianapolis, he stuck “to the white notes”—that is to the eight notes of major scales (do, re, mi, and so on). The first three pages of the published score contain not a single accidental (1-3). But while the individual notes themselves are diatonic, the harmonies avoid the typical diatonic dependence on clear, untroubled harmonic progressions, such as IV, V and I cadences (Kostka 97 and 147-48). This is the pandiatonic style, allowing for more dissonance than simple diatonicism.
Jonathan Dove’s choice of this neoclassical/diatonic/pandiatonic harmony is deliberate. Neoclassical musical language produces, as musicologist Robert P. Morgan writes, a “tone of lightness and humor” (168). It allows, as theorist Stefan Kostka has observed, “clarity, balance, and greater detachment” (146). It avoids, as Stravinsky himself commented, “hollow twaddle and bombast, false pathos, [and excessive] effusions” (qtd. in Morgan 168). The pandiatonic musical language, instead of immersing listeners into particular psyches, insures that we perceive each singer from a distance, as part of a larger organism—as part of a social-economic-psychological system known as Mansfield Park.
How does Dove/Middleton’s focus on community affect our understanding of the problematic heroine Fanny Price? As I have suggested, we do not see her much—or at least long—alone; the opera does not depict her solitude. Austen’s novel contains scenes of painful isolation, famously when the lonely Fanny watches through the Mansfield windows as Mary Crawford monopolizes her horse. Dove/Middleton transform this episode into two brief recollections embedded in the visit to Sotherton (Act I, Chapter 5: “Into the Wilderness”). Fanny’s first recollection lasts a mere 35 measures before she is interrupted by the distant singing of Mary Crawford, then the entrance of Maria, Mr. Rushworth and Henry Crawford (76-78); Fanny later recollects Mary’s appropriation of her horse, but only for 22 measures before other consciousnesses intrude (88-90). In this opera, time does not stop for individual reflection or sadness, nor does it stop for romantic duets: during the ball scene (Act II, Chapter 2), Fanny and Edmund sing a duet (“While Music plays, / Let Time’s swift motions cease”), but it lasts only 18 measures (229-30). The opera sets no scenes in “the little white attic” or in the upstairs East room, which had once served as the girls’ schoolroom. Many interpreters of the novel base their readings on Fanny’s long hours—even years—of solitary time there.8 But Dove/Middleton’s Fanny suffers in public—for her hell is indeed other people. Though, as Middleton said of her, Fanny possesses an “enormous, powerful and silent inner voice” (email), her alienation is merely part of the great composite that is Mansfield Park; we are not submerged in Fanny’s consciousness, which remains only a single component of the opera’s whole.
Dove and Middleton maintain their neoclassical irony until the work’s very last chapter, where I noted a change in tone. In this final scene, every singer steps forward, warmly joining hands and earnestly singing a chorale/glee: “Let us learn to laugh;/ Learn to laugh and live and smile. / And while we can—Learn to love.” Whatever the intent, this final tableau departs from the novel: in the text, everyone has not learned to love—are Aunt Norris, Julia, Maria, even Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram capable of love or even empathy? For me, this final scene presents a rupture from the previous ironic tone of the opera—though one could perhaps argue that the final scene reproduces the effect of the novel, in which Austen is similarly eager to dismiss her characters, as if she has simply had enough of flawed human nature and destructive habits of being: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can” (461). Or, alternatively, is this final scene an homage to the two eras to which Dove owes his stylistic allegiance: are Middleton and Dove here channeling the end of The Marriage of Figaro, in which society’s problems have (at least momentarily) been resolved? Or does this scene recollect the final pages of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which similarly concludes with banal, moralistic pieties sung in block chords: “For idle hands/ And hearts and minds / The Devil finds / A work to do” (238-39).
Despite this quibble about the final scene, I hope the opera receives more performances. The time is right, for our era has shown renewed interest in opera. It is true that current music critics and festivals often favor the edgy, the tragic, and the sensational: witness the extravagant (and deserved) praise lavished on Thomas Adès’s Powder her Face (1995), on Gregory Spears’s Paul’s Case (2013), and on New York City’s experimental Prototype Festival (called “suddenly indispensable” by the New Yorker’s Alex Ross). The new Mansfield Park, in contrast, might not seem hip and dramatic: no one describes sex acts (as in Powder her Face) or throws himself under a train (as in Paul’s Case), and the musical style looks back at the music of the 1720s, the 1820s, and the 1920s. Yet, in claiming opera as a place for irony, Dove and Middleton have created something new and radical—and, at the same time, something timely and contemporary: it is often observed that irony, for the post-modern era, is the default mode of consciousness,9 and the new opera is laced with irony. To offer another characteristically postmodern twist, Dove and Middleton, in offering something new have offered something old—they move forward to the past. For when the new Mansfield Park is operating at its best, composer and librettist offer an updated version of the pleasures of Jane Austen: intelligence, impeccable workmanship, and irony-laced accounts of the life and death of the heart.
And, as I have suggested, Dove and Middleton advance an important reading of the novel. In fact, one might argue that they—of all the commentators on Mansfield Park—have taken Austen’s title the most seriously. Austen herself provided the name for the novel (unlike Northanger Abbey and Persuasion), and she named it for a location, not for a character (Emma), or for the qualities that main characters possess (Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice). Benjamin Britten’s unwritten opera based on the novel was to have been entitled Letters from William, suggesting a focus on the long-lasting relationship between Fanny Price and her absent brother. But Dove and Middleton retained Austen’s title Mansfield Park, denoting a place and the web of entangling relationships that it fosters. As Dove and Middleton have portrayed it, in Mansfield-the-place one experiences (to paraphrase Austen’s favorite writer Samuel Johnson) “the full tide of human existence” (Boswell 2: 337), sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising: the fatuous Lady Bertram, the sometimes-moral and sometimes-bullying Sir Thomas, the toxic Aunt Norris, and the unexpectedly-likeable booby Mr. Rushworth (in the opera, he never gives up trying to please his disaffected wife, Maria). Dryden’s words are apt: “Tis sufficient to say, according to the proverb, here is God’s plenty—” (2259). Dryden wrote these words about the Canterbury Tales. We seldom group the Canterbury Tales and Mansfield Park together, but they resemble each other in being ethnographies—composites of individual portraits—rather than biographies. The new opera is more the Canterbury Tales than Jane Eyre, for history of the traumatized-triumphant heroine is only part of the bigger story that is Mansfield Park.10
3Middleton wrote me of “the limited number of singers we knew we had.” Middleton and Dove were right to cut characters and decades: no one wants a Mansfield of Wagnerian extent. Fanny’s amber cross—an important gift from her brother William—is in the opera, said to be from a cousin.
6Glees (secular part songs, often a capella, generally containing both chordal writing and simple contrapuntal passages, popular in England during Austen’s era) are found in at least four chapters of the opera: “Sir Thomas Bertram’s Farewell,” “Music and Astronomy,” “A Ball,” and “Chapter the Last.”
10I wish to thank Kevin Patterson of the Indianapolis Opera and Professor Richard Hoffman of the Belmont University School of Music, both of whom assisted me in focusing my interest in the opera Mansfield Park.