The question about The Moderate Soprano – David Hare’s uncharacteristic, ultimately elegiac play about the birth of the Glyndebourne Festival in the Sussex Downs – is, to whom will it appeal? Opera aficionados will already be familiar with many of the facts relating to the founding of this uniquely British pastime, while those who couldn’t care less, well, couldn’t care less.
For the uninitiated, Glyndebourne was the brainchild of John Christie (Roger Allam), a World War One veteran who, having inherited the Glyndebourne Estate and the grounds that went with it, decided, with his wife Audrey Mildway (Nancy Carroll), a soprano who toured with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, to annexe their country pile to an opera house of their own design.
But they couldn’t do it alone and in 1934 recruited a trio of European emigres who, fleeing the escalating Nazi scourge, helped the Christies realise their impossible dream. First on board was the eminent conductor Fritz Busch (Paul Jesson), who turned down an offer from Goering to become the chief conductor of the prestigious Bayreuth Festival. Next was the celebrated opera producer Carl Ebert (Anthony Calf), accompanied by his charismatic young assistant Rudolf Bing (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who, years later, would take charge of the Edinburgh Festival before going on to become the powerful artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
What these three extraordinarily talented men initially forfeited their burgeoining European careers for was a very small theater that accommodated a mere 311 seats, a tiny orchestra pit and, as Ebert was quick to point out, a stage “no bigger than a church hall,” a narrow proscenium, no wing room, no tower to fly the scenery, and just two small dressing rooms – one for the men and one for the women. Very early in the play when Christie informs Ebert that the inaugural presentation is to be Wagner’s epic Parsifal, Ebert wryly remarks, “Only if you put the audience on the stage and the action in the auditorium.”
Hare entertainingly dramatises the inevitable teething problems experienced by the creative team, whose first production, far more appropriate to this “jewel box” of an opera house than Parsifal, was The Marriage of Figaro, prompting Christie to remark of Mozart, “He may be great but is he any good?” It gets a laugh, but did Christie really say this or is it pure invention on Hare’s behalf? Either way, it’s an ironic statement considering that it was Mozart who gave Glyndebourne its clout.
Easier to believe is Christie’s ignorance of just how serious the Nazi threat was in 1934, and an early scene in which he meets Busch for the first time paints a picture of a rather self-absorbed dreamer out of touch with world events both politically and artistically.
What eventually broadens the play’s appeal is the touching love story at its core between Christie and Audrey, whom he married at age 48 and with whom he had two children (hardly mentioned in the play). Audrey, who initially pursued a musical career of her own, was, as the title suggests, only moderately talented. Her voice was small, but not unappealing and, as it turned out, perfectly suited the intimacy of Glyndebourne, where she appeared in several Mozart operas.
The wholly reciprocated love she shared with her husband, her soothing influence on him, her ability to disagree without openly challenging him and the pervasive common sense with which she juggled her life and her career, are beautifully delineated both in the writing and in Carroll’s luminous performance. Her final scene just before her death in 1952 is truly wrenching.
Allam is excellent, too, as a man who was made Captain in the first World War, then turned a fantasy into a fact while learning how to do so on the job. But he was not without his flaws, and even the flashes of arrogance and privilege with which Allam peppers his performance hardly prepares us for Christie’s cruel, abrupt dismissal of Ebert after 25 years and 41 productions when the running of the opera house was handed over to his son George.
Though their German accents are less than authentic, Calf and Jesson bring real authority to their characters; while Fortune-Lloyd, as the man who became one of the opera world’s most celebrated artistic directors, has all the requisite leadership qualities the role demands.
With practically no music in evidence, the rarefied world of Glyndebourne and everything its name evokes is vividly conjured by director Jeremy Herrin and set designer Paule Constable. Caviar for the general; perhaps a tad less enticing for the rest.