The heat of summer wafts through the Duke of York’s theatre. The year is 1934, and in East Sussex history is about to be made. Written by David Hare, The Moderate Soprano is as enjoyable as a light breeze in mid- July: simple but entirely effective. Although the production does not challenge its spectator – or indeed dramatic convention – it is inspirational and a truly wonderful story.
A love affair between John Christie – a retired Eton Schoolmaster and sole beneficiary of the Glyndebourne estate – and the youthful soprano, Audrey Mildmay, blossoms with ardent ferocity. Following their marriage, they set about creating what is to become one of the most influential opera companies that the UK had ever seen. Together, they work tirelessly on the realisation of a Festival Season at their private opera house, and by chance, reach out to three talented refugees of Nazi Germany. This trio knew what it was to marry music and action to create an operatic experience, their work at Glyndebourne launching the art form to heights never before reached in the country of their English counterparts.
Gauze screens become shadowy with rolling pastures and serene woodlands, a suspenseful Hitchcockian monochrome giving the stage a cinematic quality. Clouds of tannin rise out of china cups brimming with tea leaves from Fortnum and Mason, an air of caffeine complementing the chestnut furniture. Built on efficiency and enthusiasm, John Christie (played by Roger Allam), dresses in cream suits, with his tie worn short and a pair of round glasses balanced on the bridge of his nose. He is a visionary, while his wife (Nancy Carroll) is realistic but intensely fragile. In company, however, she is unfailingly lively, her throaty laugh polishing her husband’s crisp English accent as it mouths off Eastbourne and protests at the seriousness of the Nazi regime sweeping across Western Europe.
Tremors from within the tunnels of the London Underground disturb the quaint British property, with the exception of a tremendous organ. All silver and brass, it towers over the action bedecked with cherubs and a chalice of flushed flowers. Monologues are met with an orchestral accompaniment as layers are summoned and peeled away. On them, images of water pulse sleepily against a mooring of grass, while a butterfly dances lazily across the freshly cut lawn. Their presence indicates the vastness of the project that the characters have chosen to undertake, and illustrates a shared understanding of theatre as “a living thing”, an organism that grows and changes in response to its art.
On the surface, Hare’s play seems rooted in the Britishness but it is actually a celebration of what migrants bring to the country. In this case, a collaboration between English, Austrian and German individuals conceived one of Britain’s leading Opera Houses. Performed with searing honesty, Hare’s examination of the Christies is endearing in its observation of a pair of soul mates who live for the love of their work.
The Moderate Soprano is on until 30 June 2018 at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Click here for more details.