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The Moderate Soprano

"Snobs on the lawn." — Audrey
The Moderate Soprano
Nancy Carroll as Audrey Mildmay and Roger Allam as John Christie (Photo: Johan Persson)
David Hare's play first showed at Hampstead in 2015 depicting the love story between the founder of Glyndebourne Opera Season, John Christie (Roger Allam) and his much younger opera singer wife, the moderate soprano of the title, Audrey Mildmay (Nancy Carroll). John Christie was of independent means, a hero from the First World War, he wanted to set up in the grounds of his house in Sussex, an opera house festival where Wagner would be played and people from London would train down to Sussex for performances starting in the late afternoon and with a long interval for picnic suppers on the lawn.

Meeting Audrey Mildmay, a professional opera singer born in England, raised in Canada but trained at Webber Douglas in London, he fell in love and wooed her with hampers from Fortnum's and gifts like furs and jewels. What girl could resist? And despite the 17 years difference in their age, she agreed to marry him. On their honeymoon they went to Bayreuth, the German Festival town famous for its productions of Wagner.

It is Fritz Busch (Paul Jesson) who was the conductor at Dresden Opera House, who resigned in 1933 when he turned up to conduct Rigoletto and found every member of the orchestra had a swastika in his button-hole, that Christie first meets to discuss his plans for his opera festival. Busch explains the strength of having a separate music executive and someone artistic in charge of the drama. Busch introduces Carl Ebert (Anthony Calf), another refugee from Hitler's Germany, an ex-actor who trained under Max Reinhart. Rudolf Bing (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), an Austrian Jew, is recruited as the administrator to make the finances work. Bing goes on to found the Edinburgh International Festival, is knighted by the Queen and then runs the Metropolitan Opera House in New York for two decades, overseeing its move to the Lincoln Center.

John Christie has to hand over much of his dream to these three men but he is devastated, when instead of producing Wagner's final opera Parsifal, they determine to start with Mozart. However Christie insists on casting his wife, Audrey, whose experience is of lower regarded touring opera, but in a most moving speech at the end of the first act, like a true professional, she insists that she will go through the casting process and be auditioned like everyone else.

The two Germans and the Austrian fell in love with her voice, despite having previously labelled her "the moderate soprano" and she is cast. Busch’s audition notes included the following comments, ''a delightful voice, well-trained and full of artistry. Italian good. Strongly recommended. Properly used, her talent would have success in Dresden and Berlin." It is an emotional moment in the play.

John Christie sees his dream of producing Wagner at Glyndebourne dashed in favour of Mozart and of course today, Glyndebourne is known for its productions of Mozart. Bing takes care of the pricing to make sure that the festival isn’t a money pit. £2 and £1 10s! "Snobs on the lawn" is how rather brittle Audrey describes the well-heeled patrons. Amusingly John Christie makes sure the grounds are so dark that the audience can't see to leave early but in fact there is no need because Glyndebourne's reputation becomes established as a place where the performers and musicians not only sound beautiful, their acting is exceptional.

Christie parts company with his Austro-German collaborators and his family trust run Glyndebourne today.

Hare wrote this charming, gentle play in the days approaching Brexit to illustrate what a contribution immigrants can make to a country. The performances from Roger Allam and Nancy Carroll are authentic and indeed the whole cast are excellent. I liked Bob Crowley's design with its high clipped hedges giving the setting of a quintessentially British country house garden. The night I saw The Moderate Soprano many of the theatre audience were Glyndebourne patrons but slightly more down at heel, maybe those who see the operas on tour?

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The Moderate Soprano
Written by David Hare
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Starring: Roger Allam, Nancy Carroll, Paul Jesson, Anthony Calf, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd
With: Jade Williams
Design: Bob Crowley
Video Design: Luke Halls
Composer: Paul Englishby
Sound Design: Simon Baker
Lighting Design: Paule Constable
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7623
Booking to 30th June 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 10th April 2018 performance at the Duke of York's, St Martin's Lane WC2N 4PG (Tube/Rail: Charing Cross)
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