Monday, March 21, 2016

Indianapolis Opera's "Mansfield Park": Giving voice to the love affairs of the landed gentry in the Regency period

"Mansfield Park" seems an apt symbol of Indianapolis Opera's change of focus and direction: Keep the professionalism intact, but apply it in more contained ways, using fewer resources, to works without conventional marquee appeal.

'Mansfield Park' cast sings a choral resolution of the matter.
The run of this 2011 opera in its U.S. premiere finished Sunday at Butler University's Schrott Center. Jane Austen has a different kind of marquee appeal, and it's a safe bet that people who had never heard of the opera's composer, Jonathan Dove, were drawn to take a chance on the operatic realization of one of the English author's six novels.

Within its carefully set limits, "Mansfield Park" is a work scrupulously attentive to the social resonance of a properly contracted marriage in Regency England. This operatic adaptation, with a libretto by Alisdair Middleton, has a similar conscientiousness about bringing forward the Austen story — and not just the story, but her manner of telling it.

What the characters say to each other, they sing with clarity and elegance here. The author's voice in the novel is often represented by the cast used as a chorus, no more tellingly than in the final scene, which expounds on Austen's opening of her last chapter: "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery." The destined match of Fanny Price, the outsider at Mansfield Park, and Edmund, the sensitive, eligible younger son of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, is to take place as relationships among the characters get sorted out on various planes of happiness. Period furniture and costumes, together with silkscreen panels that drop into place from the flies, make the atmosphere complete.

Aunt Norris delivers a trenchant opinion; Lady Bertram and her pug receive it.
There is some good individuation of vocal styles: Music for the nattering Aunt Norris moves at a rapid patter suited to her hypercritical nature; it lay trippingly on the tongue of Donata Cucinotta Saturday night.

 Mary Crawford, a scheming newcomer hoping for a place in society along with her brother Henry, typically had lines that vaulted upward. Her social climbing was thus well represented in the performance of Leah Bobbey, who was also the most adept in facial expression.

The high baritone of Gregory Gerbrandt, along with his dignified carriage and genuine sensitivity, suited the role of Edmund. Representative of the kind of conscience that's firm but never ossifies, he is suited by an innate lack of snobbery to appreciate the genuineness of the taken-for-granted Fanny, a role radiantly filled by Kate Tombaugh. In her performance, Fanny's vulnerability and sturdy integrity were both brought into play through a voice that rang true in every situation.

Sir Thomas Bertram takes a firm hand with Fanny Price.
Barbara LeMay's Lady Bertram, a character somewhat to one side of the action, forever cradling her beloved pug, reflected the generational divide well, but the weight of tradition is carried by the lord of the manor, Sir Thomas. That role was commandingly filled by Scott Hogsed, who rose to the edge of villainy in a scene denouncing Fanny for refusing Henry Crawford's proposal of marriage.

Crawford's smug opportunism was caught in the mellifluous lyric tenor of Brett Sprague. More vain and less competent among the ambitious young men in the world of "Mansfield Park" is Mr. Rushworth, played amusingly as a nervous twit by another tenor, Ganson Salmon.

The self-centered Bertram sisters were portrayed vividly by Stephanie Feigenbaum (Julia) and Samantha Lax (Maria). These were not cookie-cutter villainesses like Cinderella's ugly stepsisters, to whom they are somewhat parallel in this realistic Cinderella story.

The singers and two pianists at one keyboard (Allegra Sorley and Oksana Glouchko) were coordinated suavely from a conductor's pit by Matthew Kraemer, music director of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. Stage direction by Karen Carpenter remained happily free of cloying artifice, though the milieu offers temptations to overdo the gestures and poses that suggest themselves in such a story, particularly when the audience's sympathies are consistently wooed by Fanny's naturalness.

The music varies subtly to suit each "chapter." There's some lovely a cappella writing in the final scene that allows for a summing-up that seems to float above the action, like Austen's omniscient narrator. Repetitive figures in the accompaniment recall John Adams from time to time, though the suppleness and buoyancy of Benjamin Britten's vocal writing are also keenly felt as a salient aspect of Dove's style.

The accents and shapeliness of phrasing throughout made the singers easy to understand. Middleton's text gets consistently suitable responses from Dove, whether we are hearing soliloquies or vocal ensembles. "Mansfield Park" immerses us in a social world that seems remote from our time and place, but does it so gracefully and unironically that we never doubt the problems of real people are the focus, given music that illuminates their characters and relationships.

[Photos by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]