David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano casts light on the 1930s origins of the Glyndebourne opera festival, and in doing so explores themes vital to contemporary Britain.
The play premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in 2015, but in the time it’s taken to transfer to the West End, it’s acquired new resonances that the writer couldn’t have foreseen. Lines such as “English values are always on the Englishman’s terms,” and “I finally realised how stupid it is to treat abnormal people as if they are normal,” now have a depth of meaning beyond the historical milieu.
The play’s echoing of modern themes is not entirely unintended however, as by the time of its first performance we were already well into Europe’s “migrant crisis”, charging the play’s central story with political significance.
You might vaguely remember that Glyndebourne was the passion project of a wealthy eccentric who built it to please his opera-singer wife; folk wisdom that The Moderate Soprano largely confirms, but the real story wasn’t quite so simple. Although John Christie’s fortune and unquenchable enthusiasm were crucial, it was the contributions of three refugees from Nazi Germany – the director Carl Ebert, the conductor Fritz Busch, and the theatre manager Rudolf Bing – that ultimately made the festival a success. As Christie’s wife Audrey, the titular moderate soprano, observes, “Glyndebourne was quintessentially English: Carl, Fritz, and Rudi saw to that.”
Towards the end of the play Christie muses that “the best fun is when you’re starting out.” In the case of The Moderate Soprano, this isn’t the case. The first half is a slog through exposition, but the pace picks up after the break, when all the initial work pays off. The viability of the whole affair rests squarely on the shoulders of Roger Allam, whose winning portrayal of Christie – a John Bull-ish embodiment of traditional English values such as amateurism, anti-intellectualism, and industriousness – packs so much naïve charm it should silence even the most virulent of class warriors. He is well matched by Nancy Carroll, as Audrey, who makes their unlikely marriage believable, and deeply affecting.
In the end, The Moderate Soprano is more like an emotionally weighty docu-drama, than a thematically coherent work of narrative fiction, but you feel good watching it, and feel better for having watched it.