Reviews Published 31 October 2015

The Moderate Soprano

Hampstead Theatre ⋄ 23rd October - 28th November 2015

The man who made Glyndebourne.

Eleanor Turney
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Photo: Manuel Harlan

What an odd play this is. David Hare has written a rather slight story about the man who built Glyndebourne (John Christie), who is presented as a self-important and rather unpleasant man, redeemed slightly by his devotion to his wife. Christie, played with bombastic brilliance by Roger Allam, married singer Audrey Mildmay (the “moderate soprano” of the title, played by Nancy Carroll), and the most interesting part of this production is when Audrey ponders how her life might have turned out if she’d stuck to being a singer rather than becoming a wife.

Sick of English attitudes to opera, Christie travels frequently to Germany to hear his beloved Wagner, and eventually concocts a plan to build a new opera house in the grounds of Glyndebourne. For all of his foot-stamping about opera – “It matters! It matters, dammit!” – it’s hard to care about whether a pampered, wealthy, rather spoilt man will get what he wants through sheer force of will or not.

He is the most English of eccentrics, by turns charming, petulant and arrogant – and utterly determined to have his way, especially over those he considers socially beneath him. He compares those running his opera house to his gardeners; they are always seen as “staff”, and, as his astute wife points out, he only likes democracy when it suits him. Christie convinces Rudolph Bing, Fritz Busch and Carl Ebert to run his opera house for him, allowing for a long scene where Busch and Ebert (Paul Jesson and Nick Sampson) explain why they had to leave Nazi Germany and start again in England.

The cast are terrific, but the plot is so lacklustre that it’s hard to care about any of the characters. Audrey dies, crankily, of an unspecified illness; Busch, Ebert and Bing go their separate ways; Christie is left, blind and alone, having succumbed to the (sensible) pressure of his artistic team and given over his Wagnerian dreams to Mozart.

Played out on a set of beautifully faded grandeur (Rae Smith), Jeremy Herrin’s production is frustratingly static. There’s a jarring mix of dialogue and exposition, including unnecessarily lengthy monologues to audience. The whole production feels rather frivolous – it’s posh people complaining about their posh people problems – apart from the undeniable threat posed by the Nazis, especially to Jewish Bing (George Taylor).

Aside from the story of how Glyndebourne began, Hare bolts on some meditations about art and opera, including some bizarre questions about pricing and accessibility, which seem out of place in the wider narrative. Audrey is upset when a review refers to Glyndebourne as “snobs on the lawn”, and is horrified by the prices they charge, allowing Christie to rail against making it easy for people to attend the opera, and to demand that they spend a whole day and all their savings for the privilege.

The production is pulled between telling a rather thin story with as much comedy as it can muster, and thinking about big questions of art, funding and access. I’m not convinced it succeeds at either. Punch lines require knowing the significance of Beyreuth, the differences between Mozart and Wagner, the absurdity of trying to replace a full orchestra with a string quartet and an organ. That doesn’t mean the play doesn’t raise a smile, but it’s a slightly strained one. I can’t shake off the feeling that poking gentle fun at Glyndebourne from a cosy theatre in Swiss Cottage has a touch of the pot calling the kettle black.


Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is a freelance writer and editor. @eleanorturney

The Moderate Soprano Show Info

Directed by Jeremey Herrin

Written by David Hare

Cast includes Roger Allam, Nancy Carroll, Paul Jesson. Nick Sampson, George Taylor




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