A Moderate Soprano – Duke of York’s Theatre, London

Writer: David Hare

Director: Jeremy Herrin

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Some rather good jokes are scattered throughout this piece. Gentle ones, polite ones. The type one could have expected in the drawing room at Totleigh Towers among the noblesse of interwar Britain. Hare, first producing this play in 2015, has captured an idea of upper-class language and humour excellently – whether it’s right for this particular stage, is another matter.

A play containing upper-class people discussing the foundation of what is still seen as a key pursuit of the privileged in summer does not scream “west-end audience”. On one hand, it’s great that a play like this can be put on in such a location, it’s to be applauded precisely because it’s a break from the scaled-up crowd-pleasers. On the other, is it a spectacular case of life imitating art – ambitious producers who fervently believe in Art (sapital A intentional) so much they’re willing to sink huge sums into it in the hope that people will come if it is built?

The story of the foundation of opera at Glyndebourne is largely the story of an outrageous (and completely excellent) character – Captain John Christie. Played here (reviving his role from 2015) with vibrating aplomb by Roger Allam, Christie was a man of seemingly limitless funds, a focus on giving back to society, and a love of opera. It seems logical, therefore, that accompanied by his professional opera singer wife Audrey, he should build an opera house in his garden and open productions to the public to try and improve the overall standard of opera in the country. Helped by three extraordinarily talented men (conductor Dr. Fritz Busch, producer Prof. Carl Ebert and manager Rudolf Bing) we watch the first season take shape – a beautiful story of passion and artistic drive.

Giving depth to the story is the backdrop of the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in 1934 when the story is set. The three men who help the Christies bring the vision to life all have had to leave Germany – their sober and affecting stories counterpoint the bounce that comes with producing art without financial restriction.

Placed on the stage at Duke of Yorks, this play with a full cast of six feels overwhelmed – though there’s excellent performances throughout. The large, dark stage is undoubtedly a smart bit of design, showing a small band of actors working within a massive context just like the characters. But the effect it has is that it feels lost – an intimate story is thrown to a huge house – when perhaps a smaller, fringe setting would have been perfect. It also, for a play about a rich man funding a private opera house, is a bit scant on why he loves the art-form so much. A lot more time is devoted to showing some background on how John doesn’t quite understand the developing political scene in Germany (a country he loves, so may be blinkered) than why he loves opera, and of the histories of Fritz, Carl and Rudolf.

Hare’s crisply constructed lines and are delivered much like a series of jolly epigrams. References to the world of theatre and opera abound – and much tittering and knowing chuckling ensues. Press night at a play means an audience is stuffed with theatre types. It felt at times like it was a play written and produced for them, for those already in the know. With opera already struggling with an elitist image problem, it was odd to find a play about the subject seemed to have created the same issue for itself.

Runs until 30 June 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan

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One Comment

  1. I half agree with the reviewer in that I wondered whether a couple of months in a large(ish) West End Theatre wasn’t a bit ambitious for a play like this; but I don’t think the appeal is restricted to opera lovers. It’s aimed at people who have heard of Glyndebourne, perhaps without the remotest desire to go there, and, perhaps, those who thought they knew what it was all about but will delight in learning about lesser-known aspects of its history. The importance of the German exiles’ input, for example, was something I hadn’t appreciated. I’d have thought this was ideal for short runs in provincial theatres and might need the West End run to make a name for itself (though, for my part, having missed it at Hampstead, I was delighted to see it finally transfer). The appeal of Roger Allam (superb performance as usual) and Nancy Carroll should ensure respectable audiences in the West End and Hare handles the narrative skilfully so that even people who know nothing about Christie or Glyndebourne can just enjoy the story. Indeed, I was sitting next to an American who had seen Quiz the night before and he was at a loss to know why he should care about the events portrayed by James Graham (though when we explained the background he got the idea); he was, however, captivated by The Moderate Soprano.

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