There is no singing, operatic or otherwise, in The Moderate Soprano, which returns to the stage following a sell-out run at Hampstead three years ago.
There is Roger Allam in a curiously bad wig (and at one point, lederhosen) as the eccentric John Christie, who made his fortune from building and decided his destiny was to build an opera house in his garden – which became Glyndebourne, England’s answer to Bayreuth.
Nancy Carroll as Audrey Mildmay (Christie) and Roger Allam as John Christie.
The soprano of the title (not moderate as in average, but as in gentle of voice) is John’s wife, Audrey, played by Nancy Carroll, and we meet both of them in the first scene after the Second World War, when their enterprise is to be taken under the control of a Trust, ‘for the people’.
We then go back to see how Glyndebourne came to be, by the tenacity and naivete of Christie, and the help of three refugees from the Nazis: Rudolf Bing, Carl Ebert, and Franz Busch. So a truly English institution was modelled on the German model by three specialists in the production of Mozart.
There are hints and glimpses of politics pre-war, and these are done well, but they feel a bit lost in what is essentially a light comedy, and David Hare’s play, now split into two Acts with an interval, could do with an additional trim to stop the action dragging to a stop.
Paul Jesson, a stalwart of the RSC who I last saw playing Henry VIII at Stratford-upon-Avon, is Busch, a conductor who fell foul of promoting Jews above Gentiles for their talent in his opera house in Dresden, who was driven out after his orchestra took to wearing swastikas on their lapels.
Anthony Calf (best known perhaps, as Strickland in New Tricks) is Ebert, engaging with the Christies in characteristic Teutonic arrogance, and his assistant Bing is played by the very mannered Jacob Fortune-Lloyd.
The play is complex, but I felt it did not entirely convince. The performances are broadly good (especially Allam, who gets to the core of the character and Jesson, who convinces as a man displaced and somewhat befuddled by political progress), but there is something missing, and the decline in health of both the Christies is not fully explained, or the fact the private enterprise seems to decline during wartime.
I was also a little disappointed with the frugality of the sets and backdrops, and the dig within the script to people prepared to pay high prices to watch opera (which is also true, these days, of London theatre).
Just a reasonable two hours of theatre, not unmissable by any means, and not an obvious candidate to see out its full run to the end of June; it probably suited the small space of the Hampstead Theatre far better.
Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam visit Glyndebourne. Photo credit Piers Foley.