The world of Glyndebourne has never particularly appealed to me, perhaps because London has a wide variety of opera performances to choose from at any given time of year. Or perhaps, as John Christie (Roger Allam) puts it in The Moderate Soprano: “They [audiences who attend Glyndebourne] must go to a London terminal at 2.30, they must give up their whole day to getting to an obscure part of Sussex, they must dress properly, they must spend the morning polishing their shoes and starching their dress shirts and searching out their cufflinks, and trying to tie a proper bow tie…” But the legacy of what Christie and his opera singer wife, Audrey Mildmay (Nancy Carroll) – the apparent moderate soprano – founded continues to be popular year on year. I say ‘apparent’ – we do not hear any actual singing from Mildmay during the play, and a verdict on an audition she gave off-stage is diplomatic.
The play is kind to Glyndebourne’s founders, but not overly so: we see a passion and determination to see a vision come to fruition while witnessing a vivid depiction of Christie’s obstinate side. He’s very strongly opinionated, with some surprising views – I found his diatribe on Mozart’s works hilarious, and so severe that it might as well have been spoken by someone who dislikes the opera more generally.
After a slow start, there’s an incredibly long scene in which both the plans for Glyndebourne and the back stories of the creatives Christie has employed from Germany are explored. Having not been able to find people in Britain that he could feasibly work with, Christie takes on Dr Fritz Busch (Paul Jesson) and Professor Carl Ebert (Nick Sampson). One of the stories is quite harrowing – Busch was not Jewish, but he was an equal opportunities employer, in Nazi Germany, long before the term ‘equal opportunities’ entered common usage. What’s odd – to me – is that the four of them in this scene (Audrey completing the quartet) are stood for the whole scene, even though there are miscellaneous chairs dotted about the room. Did the newly arrived creatives not want to sit because the hosts weren’t doing so, and vice versa simultaneously? A distraction if ever there was one…
This is, essentially, art about art, and once we were very, very clear on who was who and what was what, the story of how Glyndebourne came to be becomes fascinating: that is, the audience’s patience is generously rewarded. There are fallouts. There are successes. There are sell out shows.
There are disappointments. The Second World War got in the way of things. But most powerful of all is playwright David Hare’s decision to put Audrey Mildmay’s deteriorating health centre stage. She very much shared Christie’s vision, and pursued it with him with as much energy as she could muster, but not without cost. Her personal journey is a striking reminder that there is indeed such a thing as biting off more than one can chew. Nancy Carroll’s portrayal of Mildmay’s decline was compelling and poignant, charged with emotion at times but never melodramatic.
The (metaphorical) rollercoaster rides that Christie and his team experienced can probably be related to by a lot of people – anyone who has started any sort of new venture in any field, without being fully conversant with every aspect of running an enterprise. This, I think, is where the play’s greatest strength lies. My initial thought was that a play about a fledging opera festival was not going to have much appeal beyond theatre regulars and opera aficionados. But by the time I had left the Hampstead Theatre, I had realised many, many people have ambitions and aspirations, just like John Christie did. He was inspired but flawed, and thus human. Would I recommend The Moderate Soprano? Yes. Yes, I would.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Moderate Soprano
By David Hare
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Nobody can doubt John Christie’s passion or his formidable will: he wooed his opera singer wife with a determination befitting a man who won the Military Cross. Now, in 1934, this Etonian science teacher’s admiration for the works of Wagner leads him to embark on an ambitious project: the construction of an Opera House on his estate in Sussex.
But such is the scale of the enterprise that passion alone may not be enough. It’s only when a famous violinist is accidentally fogged in overnight in Eastbourne that Christie first hears word of a group of refugees for whom life in Germany is becoming impossible. Perhaps they can deliver Christie’s vision of the sublime – assuming of course they’re willing to cast his wife in the lead…
Writer – David Hare
Director – Jeremy Herrin
Designer – Rae Smith
Music – Paul Englishby
Lighting – James Farncombe
Sound – Tom Gibbons
JOHN CHRISTIE – ROGER ALLAM
AUDREY MILDMAY – NANCY CARROLL
DR FRITZ BUSCH – PAUL JESSON
PROFESSOR CARL EBERT – NICK SAMPSON
RUDOLF BING – GEORGE TAYLOR
The Moderate Soprano
23 October – 28th November 2015
Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage,
London, NW3 3EU