Monday, 2 November 2015

Theatre review: The Moderate Soprano

A strong cast headed by Roger Allam and Future Dame Nancy Carroll struggles to make David Hare's latest play feel like the finished article. A former chemistry teacher at Eton, John Christie (Allam in an embarrassingly ill-fitting bald cap) was a 50-year-old virgin when he went to the opera and fell for The Moderate Soprano. A barrage of gifts began the wealthy eccentric's courtship of the much younger woman, and eventually convinced Audrey (Carroll) to marry him and settle in his country home in Sussex. Today the name Glyndebourne is synonymous with opera but in 1934 the idea of building a small opera house in the grounds was the latest of Christie's bizarre grand schemes, his plan for an annual season a thinly-disguised showcase for his wife's modest talents. A Wagner fan, Christie looked to Germany for his creatives, and with the rise of Hitler some big names had found themselves out of favour with the Nazi regime.

Conductor Fritz Busch (Paul Jesson,) director Carl Ebert (Nick Sampson) and his assistant Rudolf Bing (George Taylor) are soon living at Glyndebourne and helping plan the inaugural season. With a poorly-designed auditorium and unrealistic expectations from Christie, the Germans are up against it to create a successful programme, but they put together a revolution in British opera.

A quick look over the sort of shows I've reviewed in the past will reveal that opera is far from my area of interest, let alone of expertise, so I may be way off in my general impression of Glyndebourne as the posh, expensive, traditional face of opera. The Moderate Soprano is at pains to tell us that at its inception, at least, this was far from the case*. The opera Christie knew saw the singers bring their own moth-eaten costumes, and performances not much fresher, to every show, and it was his German artists who introduced the idea of a director and designer bringing an integrated concept to an entire production.

Much as Hare tells us this, though, his play and Jeremy Herrin's production do little to bring that spirit of excitement to the stage. Although the story flirts with other angles, it is essentially that of the creation of the opera house and its annual festival, and it's a rather twee one despite the protestations to the contrary.

They've just caught sight of his wig in a mirror

The story of the Christies' relationship - there are flash-forwards to Audrey's slow, painful death from an illness that remains mysterious - is the main other avenue the play looks at, but the most interesting hint of what the play could have been is when Busch and Ebert inform their hosts of just how bad the situation in Germany is becoming under Hitler. It takes on an intense seriousness that sadly isn't followed up on - in the end, the artists having to flee their jobs because they employ Jews just means they're available to work at Glyndebourne, the couple's tutting at the injustice never turning into any real concern. Good performances don't change this from being the story of a narcissistic man with too much money who, largely by accident, created a decidedly upper-middle class cultural phenomenon. I really didn't like the Christies, nor the play which never seems to decide what story it wants to tell, and ends up settling for the gentlest take on events possible.

The Moderate Soprano by David Hare is booking until the 28th of November at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

*although the "expensive" side of things would seem to be true, Christie priding himself on his high prices and therefore the implicit luxury and quality of the experience

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