"Mansfield Park" may not be the most popular of Jane Austen's works — one website devoted to the author claims it's "disliked by more of Jane Austen's fans than any of her other novels" — but it has inspired at least two films, a TV miniseries, a play and an opera.
That operatic version is about to receive its U.S. premiere in Baltimore in a Peabody Chamber Opera production performed at Theatre Project.
English composer Jonathan Dove, whose music has won widespread admiration for its originality and expressive flair, began to hear musical possibilities in "Mansfield Park" a few decades ago.
"That doesn't always happen when I read, and it certainly didn't happen when I read other novels by Jane Austen," Dove wrote in a program note for the opera's first performance, in 2011. "There was something about the storytelling in this particular book that created a space into which music naturally flowed."
The heroine of "Mansfield Park" is Fanny Price. "There might not be much in her first appearance to captivate," Austen writes, describing Fanny as a young girl, but, "at least, nothing to disgust her relations." Fanny does not have the easiest transition into adulthood, nor the easiest time finding love, because the man she most desires is distracted by another.
Scenes of Fanny struggling to be noticed and loved "haunted me for years," Dove said. She "often appeared to suffer in silence. Her reticence invited the music. Deep feelings, which she could not utter, were seeking expression."
Dove had an opportunity to create that expression when he received a commission from Heritage Opera, a company that performs in historic English houses.
The composer turned to a librettist he had worked with on other projects, Alasdair Middleton, who did the necessary trimming to get Austen's story into workable dimensions. (Dove and Middleton will be in Baltimore for the production and activities related to it, including a panel discussion at Peabody Institute on Sunday)
Instead of using an orchestra, the composer decided on a single piano (played by two pianists). "It's a sound-world that Jane Austen would have recognized," Dove said via email this week.
"Mansfield Park" bowed in what the composer describes as "a hugely imposing stately home," Boughton House, in England's Northamptonshire.
"The drive from the main gate of the estate to the front door of the house seemed to go on for miles," Dove said. "It must have been how Mansfield Park seemed to Fanny Price when she first set eyes on it. So the experience for the audience had already begun long before the first notes of the opera."
The piece doesn't require such a splendid British setting — a good thing, because Theatre Project is about as far removed from such an ambience as one could get. The opera has had productions at England's Royal Academy of Music and Hampstead Garden Opera (which uses a theater located above a pub).
"They have all had their strengths," Dove said of the various venues. Presenting the opera in "a conventional theater can make the storytelling very clear. I think the charm of the opera is that it is chamber music, and it can actually be played in a chamber. I don't think it could ever play in a large opera house. The vocal writing is often too delicate and subtle."
That vocal writing emerges naturally and with considerable expressive beauty. And the keyboard part, with minimalist-style motor rhythms often propelling the action, is rich in color.
Baltimore discovered Dove's talents when "Tobias and the Angel," based on the book of Tobit from the biblical Apocrypha, had its U.S. premiere from the since-folded Opera Vivente in 2008. That "Mansfield Park" is about to get its U.S. premiere here, too, may suggest that Dove has ties to the city. Not so.
"Pure serendipity," the composer says. "At least, as far as I know. I'm delighted to have another reason to visit."