REVIEW: The Moderate Soprano, Hampstead Theatre ✭✭

The Moderate Soprano at Hampstead Theatre
Roger Allam (John Christie), Nancy Carroll (Audrey Mildmay), Nick Sampson (Professor Carl Ebert) , Paul Jesson (Dr Fritz Busch), photo © Manuel Harlan

The Moderate Soprano
Hampstead Theatre
27 October 2015
2 Stars

That’s the wonder of theatre. It’s mutability. Skylight, The Absence Of War, The Judas Kiss and The Vertical Hour have all been revived in the last couple of years, and many people remark to me how they’ve all changed with time, even though I’ve not re-written a word. It’s them who have changed. And the times have changed. But not the play. Or rather, not the words in the play.

So opines David Hare in the programme for The Moderate Soprano, his new play now having its world premiere under the direction of Jeremy Herrin at the Hampstead Theatre. He is, no doubt, correct. But his words turn out to be apt in a slightly different context. On the evidence of The Modern Soprano, while the times might have changed, Hare has not changed with them, delivering a text which is not as adventurous or theatrically interesting as any of the plays he mentions above, and which might have been written long before the point those ‘times have changed’.

This original work stands in stark contrast to Hare’s vital and exciting work in the Young Chekhov season at Chichester. While the subject here is genuinely interesting – how that most English and enduring of operatic institutions, Glyndebourne, came into being – and there are bizarre and eccentric characters aplenty, all capable of a clever or thoughtful line, Hare’s treatment has one singular characteristic: dullness.

In a way, the play is a story of one man’s mission to bring proper Opera to Sussex. In another way, it is the story of a marriage and the child of that marriage. In yet another way, it looks at the way music can control and shape lives. In still another way, it is a meditation on friendship and business.

The Moderate Soprano at Hampstead Theatre
Roger Allam (John Christie) and Nancy Carroll (Audrey Mildmay) photo © Manuel Harlan

These are all interesting enough themes, but in order to work properly there has to be a theatrical way in. Here, it is never really clear what Hare sees that to be. The play skips time zones in a care-free way, and while this is not problematic to follow, it does make it more difficult to understand the overall conceit, to maintain an emotional connection. The play is not about the reminiscences of one party or even more than one party. It is not really a biographical play either.

Despite the title, the play is not about Audrey Mildmay, the wife of John Christie, whose brainchild and passion Glyndebourne is. It’s not really about Christie either, although it is more about him than anyone else. Audrey sang major roles in some of the original Glyndebourne productions, but it was not, so we are to believe, a case of nepotism.

Christie is obsessed with Wagner and wants Parsifal to open the first Glyndebourne season. Those he has engaged to prepare and present the season, Professor Carl Ebert and Dr Fritz Busch, both Germans, have other ideas. Rudolph Bing, a suave Viennese administrator, tries to keep all parties happy and focussed so that the critical first season can be a triumph. Tempers fray, egos are soothed, and after some wheeling and dealing, the inaugural season of Glyndebourne begins with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Audrey sings the role of the Countess and a new golden age of musical prosperity dawns on the Downs. A real Sussex story – that may be Hare’s best joke on the topic and it’s not in the play.

And that, really, is that.

Hare’s play has little else to offer. There are endless arid arguments about opera administration, repertoire and personalities, none of which provide particular insight into character. Christie’s follies are investigated but in a largely tepid way. Not much is really learnt about the five characters even though there is an awful lot of talking.

For a play which is essentially about Opera and the passions it inspires, Hare’s work keeps well away from music. It is not until the final scenes that actual Opera tunes are heard. This seems odd.

One of the clear ways to make this story breathe and resonant would be to utilise music as part of the fabric of the narrative. Given Christie’s passion for Wagner, liet-motifs of some sort might have been useful for the characters and some sense of what kind of a singer Audrey actually was may have helped. Glyndebourne eventually succeeds because of the new style of opera presentation championed by Busch and Ebert – rehearsal scenes may have made this easier to understand.

To misquote Amadeus: “Too many words”. Not enough substance, style or story.

What pleasure the play offers comes in the characters Hare has carved from fragments of history. Roger Allam, almost unrecognisable as John Christie, does a superb job, totally transforming himself into a funny, fussy, oddly dressed Opera lover. He makes eccentricity part of the fibre of Christie and superbly shows his extremes: his anger about Glyndebourne when things don’t go his way; his gentle adoration of Audrey; his unflappable belief in the inherent value of Opera as the most sublime aspect of humanity.

The Moderate Soprano at Hampstead Theatre
Roger Allam (John Christie), Nancy Carroll (Audrey Mildmay), Nick Sampson (Professor Carl Ebert) , Paul Jesson (Dr Fritz Busch), photo © Manuel Harlan

Many images of Allam here will endure: his tireless patience with his ailing, dying wife; taking tea in an idiosyncratic way; gazing lovingly over the estate; determinedly arguing about the power and importance of Opera; dismissively dealing with fears about failure. The tenderest moment of the play occurs when Allam’s Christie is trying to comfort his deteriorating, temporarily blind wife, Audrey by meeting her request to list the Glyndebourne productions of the initial seasons. It’s tender, intimate and idiosyncratic – completely summing up Christie’s relationship with Audrey.

The luminous Nancy Carroll does her best with the role of Audrey, but she does not get much chance from the text to flex her considerable acting muscles. But she makes the most of every opportunity – her soliloquies are beautifully judged, and provide insight into the mind of a sensible, unambitious but undeniably appealing character. She is excellent in all the scenes with Allam, and her scenes with George Taylor’s Bing also ring with class: it is delightful to see Carroll express Audrey’s joy when Bing tells her that she will sing in the opening season at Glyndebourne.

A deal of the tension and texture in the material should come from the outsiders: Paul Jesson’s Busch, Nick Sampson’s Ebert and Taylor’s Bing. But, alas, it is really only Taylor who succeeds at this. Both Jesson and Ebert are far too “English” to be credible as exiled Germans; it’s not just a matter of speech, its attitude, posture and bearing. Tension needs to be generated, and the script easily permits it, but these performances deny that possibility.

There are large passages where movement is non-existent and talk is endless. These scenes rely upon the actors: only their vocal and dramatic skills can enliven the verbiage. Try as he might, Allam cannot propel these scenes alone – he needs better help from Jesson and Sampson in particular.

Rae Smith provides impeccable costumes and set furnishings, but the set seemed unusually bland. In the text, Hare specifies:

Throughout, location is only lightly sketched in – implied, not represented. In Sussex, always a feeling of air and light, of the soft Downs beyond.

Smith seems to have had other ideas which, admittedly, in one or two scenes, achieve an appropriate feel. Otherwise, though, the set here, while undeniably pretty, does not really serve the needs of the play.

James Farncombe’s lighting, however, is first class, and produces effects which often overcome the defects in the set design and Paul Englishby’s music is appropriately pleasant.

This is a surprisingly disappointing new work from Hare. It’s not awful, but it is not scintillating or ground-breaking. Roger Allam cannot make it glow, try as he might, with the able support of Carroll and Taylor. Although it might be sold out, it seems unlikely that The Moderate Soprano will be other than a moderate success.

The Moderate Soprano runs until 28 November at Hampstead Theatre

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