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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Setting Mansfield Park to music

The ordinary happiness and quiet heartbreak of Jane Austen's novels hardly seem to fit the melodramatic template of so many grand operas, with their bloody revenge plots, tragic suicides and epic acts of heroism.

Despite that incongruity, a couple of intrepid composers have tried adapting Austen for the operatic stage. In 2007, the American composer Kirke Mechem released a Pride and Prejudice opera, and in the summer of 2011, the British composer Jonathan Dove premiered his operatic adaptation of Mansfield Park at a stately home in Northamptonshire, the county where most of the novel is set. (The Austenonly blog reviewed the production here, and it certainly sounds like a lovely occasion.)

This weekend, Dove’s opera, with a libretto by Alasdair Middleton, will get its American professional premiere at the Indianapolis Opera; a special tea for the local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America will precede the Sunday matinee.

Mansfield Park is a “chamber opera,” meaning it’s less sprawling and ambitious than many staples of the classical repertoire. The score is written for four-handed piano (two musicians on one instrument), and the entire performance runs less than two hours.

If that seems a suspiciously short time in which to cover the whole of this complicated novel, a glance at the cast list confirms it: Dove and Middleton have achieved this brevity by sacrificing several characters, including Tom Bertram, Mr. Yates and the Price siblings and parents. (Indeed, Wikipedia explains that the entire Portsmouth sequence is gone, although the amateur theatricals and the expedition to Sotherton remain.)

Does the slimmed-down Mansfield Park succeed as Austen adaptation, as operatic performance, or as both? We await the reports from Indiana.

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