Theatre review – The Moderate Soprano by David Hare

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Following on from the recently transferred Mr Foote’s Other Leg, the Hampstead Theatre’s latest production brings another prominent British actor to this North West London stage, as Roger Allam leads the small cast in David Hare’s new play, which reveals the beginnings of what has become one of the most respected opera house – Glyndebourne.

Having never visited the venue myself and being unfamiliar with its origins, this play was an interesting opportunity to broaden my own cultural knowledge. Roger Allam plays John Christie, whose love of opera led him in 1934 to set upon an ambitious project – to build an opera house in the grounds of his Sussex home. In order to bring his very English dream to life he needs help and convinces Germans, conductor Fritz Busch, director Carl Ebert and administrator Rudolf Bing to join his venture and craft the opening season. At a time when Nazi Germany was growing ever stronger and casting an ever larger shadow, it is amazing to learn how these three Germans, fleeing from their homeland, helped make Glyndebourne an early success.

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Such success was also in no small way due to the support of Christie’s wife, the singer Audrey Mildmay (played by the sublime Nancy Carroll), whom he met and fell in love with at the age of 48. He refers to her as the moderate soprano and is determined she will sing at his opera house.

It’s a very English, quaint play, as we see this eccentric English gentleman, bullish in his approach to his dream. Christie is aware he needs the help of the three Germans (all hugely important figures in the European opera world), but he struggles to let go of artistic control, viewing them as employees akin to his gardener and who therefore should answer to him. It is his home, his money and his opera house after all. It is Audrey who helps smooth the waters and steer him in to accepting that perhaps these three men know more about running an opera house than him and can help make a success out of Glyndebourne in a way he couldn’t.

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By the nature of the story, it is quite a slow play and there are scenes in which very little happens at all and where instead there is a great deal of exposition, perhaps the biggest example being the long scene where Fritz and Carl tell the story of their exit from Germany. Such moments do cause the play to drag and at times feel a little dull. However, what it lacks in pace (I do think the text could have benefited from some trimming) is made up for through the acting of the five member cast.

Roger Allam perfectly captures the different facets of Christie’s personality, from his stubborn, English stuffiness, through to his passion for the project and his love and affection for his wife. Nancy Carroll, who remains one of my favourite actresses, is wonderful as Audrey. She carries with her an air of natural class and style that not many actresses could achieve and she has a lovely relationship with Allam. Their marriage genuinely feels like one built on love and mutual respect. I would have liked to have seen more of the play’s focus be on her and her choice to sacrifice her career for his role as wife and supporter of her husband’s dream.

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Perhaps the best moment for Allam in the play for me is Christie’s impassioned speech about why those coming to Glyndebourne should be making an effort, dressing up and committing to it for more than just a quick couple of hours after work. It made me smile and admire his old-fashioned sense of style. It may seem elitist to some, but I’m quite a fan of tradition and although I’ve never been to the venue, I love the old-fashioned standard maintained by a dress code.

Playing the three Germans who helped make a success of what has become a very English institution are Paul Jesson, Nick Sampson and George Taylor. All three are very good although I did find the lack of accents for Jesson and Sampson (the latter for whom this is partly explained) a bit of a distraction. They do however play wonderfully with Allam and I particularly enjoyed watching them present him with their proposed opening season – not Wagner as he’d imagined, but to his annoyance Mozart. It also wasn’t lost on me that at a time when there is so much discussion about refugees and the closing of borders, it was ironic to think that it is thanks to such refugees fleeing from the darkness they could see coming from the Nazis (something which the Christies in rural 1930s England have no idea about), that Glyndebourne was able to flourish in those early years.

Overall I enjoyed this play. It is very well acted and provides an interesting insight in to a subject I knew next to nothing about. However, the long exposition scenes and lack of pace were a bit disappointing and although the relationship between the Christies is lovely, it didn’t move me on a deeper emotional level. It has however made me quite curious to go and see Glyndebourne for myself. I’ll certainly be thinking of John Christie’s passion for this now famous cultural venue if I do.

The Moderate Soprano continues its run at the Hampstead Theatre until this Saturday (28th November 2015). For last minute ticket availability call the box office on 020 7722 9301. For more details visit the website here.

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