Jeremy Malies in the West End
12 April 2018
“Normally it’s only princes who build opera houses” is one of many wonderful lines given to Roger Allam as Sir John Christie in David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano. As a gag it’s rivalled only by his observation that doing Mozart in preference to Wagner is like playing cricket with a soft ball and stupefaction that “the people of Tunbridge Wells were indifferent to Parsifal.”
The ensemble. Photo credit: Alastair Muir.
The play tells the story of how Sir John inherited a Jacobean manor on the Sussex Downs in 1920 and resolved to build an opera house that would rival Bayreuth for quality and where his wife, the soprano Audrey Mildmay, could sing. It has been revived at the Duke of York’s after premiering at the Hampstead Theatre three years ago.
Allam is a three-time Olivier winner who anchors what is often a pedestrian production and a surprisingly bland piece of writing by Hare who was born in Sussex himself and educated at a school on these same Downs.
The opening scene shows Christie persuading the German conductor Fritz Busch (played by Paul Jesson) to leave Amsterdam for Sussex and later we learn that the left-leaning Busch, a gentile who counted many Jews among his friends, is available because he has been removed from the Dresden State Opera soon after Hitler’s rise to power. Glyndebourne as a place of refuge is a constant motif.
This is a non-linear memory play presented in fragments by many of the characters. As you would expect, Hare’s craft as a dramatist means the structure is successful but for a topic that should hit many high notes the whole project is often plodding. There are only so many wisecracks that you can make about nightlife in the area being limited and it being incongruous that opera buffa should be performed on farmland.
Paul Jesson. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
In so far as he has given the enterprise his blessing and allowed Hare unrestricted access to archive materials, Sir John’s grandson, Eton-educated Gus, has shown broad shoulders. Hare is often ambivalent with social commentary, having one of the German émigrés note: “This is how it works here. They all went to school together and they all look after each other.” There are prescient laughs when the German artistic team complain that nobody will be able to afford the prices for the opening season in 1934.
A major problem with the production is Nancy Carroll as the titular Mildmay. I can find nothing positive to say. Her approach to heightened received pronunciation is drawled vowels that would sound mannered as Lady Bracknell. Possibly worse, the moment the dialogue requires deepened emotion she resorts to shouting. There is no gradation. At first I thought the interpretation might be non-naturalistic or a caricature until the general context of the play emerged and I realized that this was just shockingly bad acting. When Carroll’s character ponders whether her acting ability matches her singing the unintentional irony is massive.
The penultimate scene between Sir John and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Rudolf Bing (onetime head of the New York Met) is hugely moving as they reflect that Christie, a true visionary, is now blind. Despite poor eyesight, he had proved exceptionally brave during WWI with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, strolling through No Man’s Land as if it were his estate in Sussex and reading to his troops in the trenches from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.
Hare and director Jeremy Herrin show discipline by keeping the incidental music to a minimum when more of it would have been an easy and lazy choice. Set designer Bob Crowley creates an exquisite cyclorama in which he depicts the Ouse Valley stretching towards the Channel across which Christie, when on leave, would have heard artillery shells in the Pas-de-Calais. Later, the sky is gently ruffled by aircraft, possibly RAF bombers about to flatten the Dresden at which Fritz Busch had conducted Sir John’s beloved Wagner.
Christie is interested in what speaks to the soul and tells his associates: “Your lives are a sideshow. Opera is the thing.” Allam captures the vivacity and is a dead-spit for the man himself but it’s not enough. An exceptional wit, he is given enviable gags while other jokes are lame. The script celebrates Christie’s refusal to compromise but ultimately it’s disappointing that a perfectionist should be depicted in a play with such obvious flaws.
A significant theme is one of the plot ingredients from Citizen Kane: a wealthy man builds an opera house in which his wife will be able to sing. We are told early on in The Moderate Soprano that as a description of Mildmay’s voice, the adjective refers to vocal range not quality. But in the normal sense of the word, the play is moderate at best.