The Moderate Soprano

David Hare

Hampstead Theatre

From 23 October 2015 to 28 November 2015

Review by Philip Fisher

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On the surface, The Moderate Soprano is a biographical play about the lives of John Christie, his wife Audrey Mildmay and their involvement in the creation of the legendary opera house at Glyndebourne.

However, it would come as no surprise to learn that Sir David Hare chose this subject matter more for the light that it sheds on English eccentricity and our slowly dying class system in the interwar years and just beyond.

The Churchillian Christie, portrayed with impressive rigour and humanity by Roger Allam, was one of those well-born, snobbish Englishmen used to having his way.

Whether it was in business, in wooing and winning a beauty, decades his junior and played with winning enthusiasm by Nancy Carroll, or envisioning and then driving through the founding of an opera house in his own back garden, once this man got started, he took on the characteristics of a human steam roller. Pleasingly though, on the odd rare occasion he did allow himself to be beaten by those better qualified, but not necessarily with good grace.

The play, directed by Jeremy Herrin and set in an impressionistic Rae Smith design combining boudoir, living room and Opera House stage, covers the quarter-century from the early 1930s. That takes us through from the time that the idea originally took hold to the tragedy of Audrey Mildmay’s early death, seemingly as a result of poor medical treatment.

It seems likely that the initial seeds for the venture were sown soon after the couple’s marriage. The new Mrs Christie is The Moderate Soprano of the title, our husband emphasising that the moderation related to her vocal timbre rather than talent.

It is one thing to have an idea but another to carry it through. This would probably never have happened had Christie not recruited the services of three eminent Germans. That in turn owed much to the behaviour of the Nazis in their home country. For reasons of safety or detestation, the trio all disappeared into exile needing work.

Dr Fritz Busch, played by Paul Jesson, was a distinguished conductor who, rather than accepting Goering’s offer to take over at Bayreuth, preferred this new opera house on the Sussex Downs.

Nick Sampson’s Professor Carl Ebert was a director more interested in the artistic than the musical side, while Rudolph Bing, portrayed by George Taylor, was a handsome impresario who later ran both the Edinburgh Festival and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

This trio might have been beholden to Christie for finance and their jobs but together they formed a powerful opposition, when the need arose.

In particular, they were twice forced to cross their host over issues that seemed insuperable. First, he was determined that his wife would take leading roles in the early Glyndebourne operas.

Secondly, since the vision was to create an English Bayreuth, his thoughts on programming stretched no further than wall-to-wall Wagner. With a tiny house, small orchestra and limited budget, the Germans worked hard to gain acceptance that Mozart would be far more appropriate.

Ultimately, the success of the venture can be seen over 80 years after it opened. Glyndebourne is now renowned as one of the great opera houses of the world, though still a homage to English eccentricity and more particularly the vision and drive of John Christie.

The Moderate Soprano is a small-scale, quiet play but pleases due to excellent performances from all involved and a script which reminds us how English eccentricity and determination could give Hitler and his cohorts one in the eye, while at the same time bequeathing the world an enduring asset.