David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano is, on the surface, a play about the construction (literally and artistically) of Glyndebourne opera house. Within that, it charmingly incorporates a side-angled view of the English gentry warped slightly by the eccentric will of owner John Christie (Roger Allam), the displacement of art at the hands of Nazi Germany, and the transcendent forms of love, sex and betrayal. Hare tells this story through multiple strands, going forwards in time, backwards in time and focusing on the core group of creatives who put Glyndebourne together as they do it. No matter which time frame they are inhabiting at any one time, their focus is specific: the pre-war years that birthed Glyndebourne. So, with all that, what exactly is The Moderate Soprano missing? Well, they weren’t wearing wedding rings.
Sounds trivial, I know, but it encapsulates the gaps in the production. Christie was a confirmed bachelor until the age of 48 when he met and fell in love with his moderate soprano Audrey Mildmay (Nancy Carroll). With Mildmay, he was balanced and made whole. It is both historically proven and integral to the overall plot of The Moderate Soprano that without Mildmay, and without that union, there would absolutely have been no Glyndebourne opera house. So the least, the very least, Christie could do would be to wear a wedding ring. He wasn’t the only one who went without: Rudolf Bing (George Taylor), the opera house’s budget planner, also references his wife multiple times without putting a ring on it.
These ring-shaped holes appear all over this version of The Moderate Soprano. Perhaps they’re only visible because it is a fantastic play. Perhaps their ugly heads only rear because the cast is so brilliant. Perhaps it’s because the direction is slightly unambitious that the whole thing seems to be missing something. This version of The Moderate Soprano seems, if only marginally, unfinished.
Conversely, most of the set is finished beautifully, depicting the unfinished opera house centrally. A proscenium arch that houses the action, taking within it drawing rooms, street corners and everything in between, all highlighted by old fashioned stage lights. That which surrounds it is sparse: there are largely unused desks against exposed paintwork, potentially representative of Glyndebourne’s necessary dislocation from the world around it and Christie’s own desire to allow himself blissful ignorance to enable himself to pursue the sublime. But realistically, the surrounding space is noticeably redundant. It kind of feels awkward, further evident in the individual monologues directly addressed to the audience, which jar unnaturally in the midst of the action.
Christie’s final speech, on the other hand, is delivered incredibly naturally. He talks of mortality and the ability to acknowledge the ‘best bits’ of life in the very moments they are happening. And that speech is very much the best bit of The Moderate Soprano, echoing exactly what the best bits of the whole production were – strikingly good acting and even better writing.
The Moderate Soprano is playing at the Hampstead Theatre until 28 November. For more information and tickets, see the Hampstead Theatre website. Photo: Hampstead Theatre.