First appearing at Hampstead Theatre in 2015, David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano has now transferred to the West End, more specifically the Duke Of York’s Theatre. ‘Glyndebourne’s original love story’, it follows the story of John Christie (Roger Allam) the founder of Glyndebourne Opera House in Lewys, Sussex, and Audrey Mildmay (Nancy Carroll), the eponymous opera singer with whom he fell in love.
It’s easy to write off the story of Glyndebourne as simply a ridiculously wealthy old idiot who builds an opera house in his garden to show off his wife’s talents – but The Moderate Soprano tells a different tale. Christie was still a ridiculously wealthy old idiot, a landowner and Eton schoolmaster writing long letters to the Prime Minister during WWII with undoubtedly unhelpful and unwarranted advice, but he also wasn’t. It appears the annoyingly blind confidence and boundless energy he had, combined with his passion for music, and the sensibility of his wife, Audrey, conspired perfectly together – and Glyndebourne was born.
This is, of course, just before the war. Christie strikes it lucky when three men, all experts in their field, become political refugees and are unfortunately forced out of Germany. Producer Carl Ebert (Anthony Calf), Administrator Rudolf Bing (Jacob-Fortune-Lloyd) and Conductor Fritz Busch (Paul Jesson), are recommended to Christie, and together they created Glyndebourne. What ensues is a bit of a scramble for artistic license, but ultimately ends with Christie leaving the Opera in the European men’s hands, and it became a product of all their labours. Strange then, that something so often regarded as quintessentially British was actually, in playwright Hare’s words ‘more properly mongrel’. Perhaps though, being British is being cosmopolitan, being a mixture of this and that, a melting pot of ideas and cultures.
Hare’s story, directed by Jeremy Herrin, is a romantic, soft piece. At the centre of it all is Mildmay and Christie’s love story, and the scenes between Allam and Carroll in which Audrey is in her final years are tender and painfully sweet. Allam portrays Christie’s devotion to Mildmay with a sigh-inducing gentility. “Are you sure you’re just not dealing with it the right way?” he asks, when the Germans tell him stories of Adolf Hitler, but still his character is mostly affable, even in his daftest, most idiotically obtuse moments. From sun-drenched English gardens, to the golden grandeur of the opera hall, Bob Crowley’s glorious set design is the perfect backdrop to a dreamy story. Although Christie’s character is intermittently annoying, this is, at its core, a play about love, acceptance, and art, in an extraordinary time in history.
The Moderate Soprano is playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 30 June
Photo: Johan Perrson