David Hare’s Glyndebourne Origin Story Fails to Hit any High Notes

United KingdomUnited Kingdom David Hare, The Moderate Soprano: Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 11.4.2018. (JPr)

Cast of David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano (c) Johan Persson


Captain John Christie – Roger Allam
Audrey Mildmay – Nancy Carroll
Professor Carl Ebert – Anthony Calf
Rudolf Bing – Jacob Fortune-Lloyd
Dr Fritz Busch – Paul Jesson
Jane Smith – Jade Williams


Playwright – David Hare
Director – Jeremy Herrin
Set and costume designer – Bob Crowley
Lighting designer – Paule Constable
Composer – Paul Englishby

It is the essays in the programme for The Moderate Soprano that are most illuminating. Basically, it is about ‘resolute bachelor’ John Christie ‘an Eton schoolmaster of private means who had distinguished himself during the First World War’ who as the urban myth tells it ‘built an opera house in his garden in Sussex in the 1930s because he wanted to showcase the singing of his wife.’ She was the professional opera singer Audrey Mildmay and Hare writes how ‘Even before meeting her, Christie was obsessed with the music of Wagner and the beauty of Germany, a country he adored. When it came to constructing a theatre from scratch, it was Christie who had the original dream, but it was his wife who made the dream real, bringing a much-needed practicality. Audrey is the unsung heroine of the whole venture.’ Later Hare goes on to explain how Christie happened to employ three refugees from Nazi Germany – the conductor Fritz Busch, stage director Carl Ebert and administrator Rudolf Bing – to plan the inaugural season. With this play Hare ‘wanted to celebrate a time when our country openly welcomed a migrant group, not just because of what we could give them, but because of what they might give us … Our most famous private opera house is, in essence, European, an odd mixture of eccentric upper-class English manners and brilliant German élan.’ Though in fact Bing was an Austrian Jew which is an important distinction to someone like me who is (half)Viennese and of Jewish heritage!

Perhaps I am in a position better than most to comment on this play because firstly I have been to Glyndebourne both ancient and modern. My only time in the original theatre – described in David Hare’s play as a ‘jewel box’ – was in the mid1970s for Richard Strauss’s Intermezzo with Elisabeth Söderström – and since the reopening of the brand-new opera house in 1994 I have returned a few more times. Equally significantly I have been to Wagner’s Bayreuth on and off for nearly thirty years and that composer and his Festspielhaus feature heavily in The Moderate Soprano. And finally, I was associated in a tangential way during the late 1990s when another English eccentric Wagnerian like John Christie – and I mean that as a compliment – also wanted to build an intimate theatre in which to perform his operas. Unlike Christie who according to Hare suffered the disappointment of endless seasons of Mozart and no Wagner, Martin Graham along with his wife Lizzie have succeeded in staging Wagner at Longborough in the Cotswolds since 1998 with several marvellous performances and a full Ring cycle in 2013.

In the programme there is also a fascinating reminiscence of John and Audrey Christie by Glyndebourne’s archivist Julia Aries who could be accused of a certain bias of course, but seems to hint that what David Hare does is – paraphrasing the words of a character in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – ‘When truth becomes legend, show us the legend’.

John Christie tells at the start: ‘For me it’s the garden and the way the garden is tended. I’ve always treated the staff – I’m talking about the conductor, the producer, the lovely people who sing – the singers, the people in the band, the chorus, all those kind of people who make the music – I treat them very much as I treat the gardeners, No different. The gardeners do the garden, and the musicians do the music. There’s a way of treating people, isn’t there? Don’t you think? Amazing how few people understand. I’ll tell you what I say: “It’s my garden, but it’s your talent.” There. Not so difficult is it? “You make it, but I own it.” ’ From this moment until his lederhosen-clad tirade near the end of the play about how important the high ticket prices are and the sort of people he wants to come to his summer festival – the respect they need to show by dressing up and the effort they will need to put in getting there – John Christie is depicted as a rather buffoonish, slightly pompous man-child. Something of a cross between Boris Johnson and Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army and not the person who does the things Julia Aries tells us he does such as his wartime achievements and designing ‘the plant which supplied the new-fangled electricity for the house’. It seems he did have plans for Parsifal with only a string quartet, but surely he must have had more going for him than we are allowed to see.

We see Audrey as a sort-of Alma Mahler figure content to be compliant to her husband but longing for the career she has been forced to give up because of marriage. She is dismissed by Bing as a singer who ‘tours’ and by Busch as someone whose small voice was good enough for Glyndebourne but not for his wartime performances of Così fan tutte in New York. Audrey’s singing and efforts on behalf of Glyndebourne – that did so much harm to her already fragile health – during her forced exile during the war for safety reasons to Canada is totally ignored by the play, as are their children, and her working ‘tirelessly’ for the success of Glyndebourne before, during, and after the Second World War. Despite Hare writing about her being that ‘unsung heroine of the whole venture’ for me he doesn’t seem that interested in her, and although she is shown in the infirmity of illness and old age full of bitterness at what could have been, we never get a sense of what was. Why could we not hear her successful audition to get a better idea of her own vocal talents and show she was not just a wannabe who married well? Despite there being a composer (Paul Englishby) listed strangely there is very little music in this play about a soprano and the origins of an opera house.

Elsewhere the other characters, Busch (Paul Jesson), Ebert (Anthony Calf) and Bing (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), are brought to as much life as all the exposition Hare gives them about music, performance, opera and particularly how they fled from the Nazis, allows them. From the latter well-trodden ground, we remain none the wiser about what the Germanophile Christie’s real opinion of Hitler was. Also, there seemed to be hints at stories left unexplored. What was the relationship with Dr Lloyd who we are told was ‘dear’ to Christie at Eton and designed the organ for him in the special room he built for it? We are told Christie had never made love to a woman until he met Audrey. And what about Audrey and the charming Bing – given a charismatic performance by Fortune-Lloyd – did anything happen between them?

What definitely was needed was more of the love story we were promised and less about Germany in the 1930s. Roger Allam and Nancy Carroll the two excellent leads are at their heartrending best in a scene late in the play where Audrey is blind but clinging to life and finds solace in her husband’s reminding her one-by-one of all the operas in Glyndebourne’s Mozart-heavy formative years. Nothing more is needed to reveal Christie’s love for his wife and his wish to fend off her imminent loss.

The Moderate Soprano gets a moderate production by Jeremy Herrin and most of it takes place in front of a screen of black and white images from those early times at Glyndebourne or in a faithful recreation – by Bob Crowley – of that Organ Room there or part of the gardens. More of the atmosphere of early Glyndebourne is actually created by the cramped seating and narrow passageways of the venerable Duke of York’s Theatre and an offer at all the seats – at least in the stalls – to order food and drink while you watch the play. Now that’s something the Christie David Hare shows us would have approved of!

The play ends as Audrey takes to the stage in full costume for the first Glyndebourne Le nozze di Figaro though still we do not hear ‘The Moderate Soprano’ sing, but we should have. Nevertheless, do go for a reflection of the background to what has become a British summer institution and I will leave others to comment on whether much has really changed there since 1934. I know what I think!

Jim Pritchard

For more about The Moderate Soprano click here.

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