Subtitled ‘Gyndebourne’s Original Love Story’, The Moderate Soprano is a homage to the beginnings of the first English opera festival in the heart of leafy Sussex. As such it could have been thumb-twistingly, watch-checkingly boring, yet it’s absolutely at home at the Duke of York’s Theatre having been considerably altered since its first outing, from an updated script by David Hare to new costumes and set design by Bob Crowley whose impressive organ is symbolic of the limitless ambitions of Glyndebourne’s founder.
Much like a now-staple opera which you discover had a lukewarm premiere a hundred years ago, this play has all the hallmarks of a classic we can expect to see revived time and again. With touches of Shadowlands in feel and sheer writing breadth, Hare’s The Moderate Soprano, which first opened at Hampstead Theatre, is full of passion for opera as you’d expect (Wagner v Mozart), but the richness of the text explores the humanity of a Europe on the brink of WWII and the creative art of stage production and all that this means; teamwork which involves deep honesty (the truth hurts), and most of all compromise, from the top down.
Directed by Jeremy Herrin, the brilliant six-part cast unite the story of Glyndebourne opera festival as both an enterprise and a vision. Original lead Roger Allam as John Christie, the visionary founder himself, is breathtakingly funny and tender, whether it’s trying to persuade conductor Dr Fritz Busch (Paul Jesson) and Professor Carl Ebert (Anthony Calf) to come on board, to his leadership later being challenged, or the final days of his beloved wife’s demise – The Moderate Soprano herself – he delivers a career-defining performance oozing with dramatic subtlety and deftly-timed comedy. He also manages to mix a mouthwatering cocktail.
The fact that the group, including the Austrian Jew Rudolph Bing (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who will help Christie realise his dream are fleeing Nazi dictatorship and in turn dictate their own terms to him is an elegantly handled irony. Even his operatic young wife Audrey (played by the captivating Nancy Carroll) agrees that she can’t land a role and escape auditioning simply because she’s married to the boss. More distressing still to Christie is Ebert’s belief that they must forgo opening with Wagner’s Parsifal (far too indigestible after a picnic) in favour of a double bill of Mozart – a composer Christie can quite frankly ‘take or leave’.
After all, they have to look to their audience and admit that the English (generally speaking) know next to nothing about opera and that 1 in 10 of the people who attend the festival will be there for a picnic, pork pie and champagne and won’t even know what they’re seeing. ‘Snobs on the Lawn’ is the vexatious review The Times gives their first season. Probably not much change there then.
This joyous tale of how one man and his rather persuasive wife changed the face of opera in England, enhancing our appreciation by boldly altering the atmosphere and environment in which such sublime music is typically enjoyed, makes you want to leap for some tickets to the forthcoming season and a Fortnum and Mason picnic hamper. As Christie observes, Glyndebourne is expensive, yes, for in order to make his audience sit up and appreciate the music and the labours that have gone into staging it they have to invest time, effort (bow-ties that will hold up all night) and money. Even if you hate opera The Moderate Soprano is worth every penny of the ticket price. It has to be one of the most rapturous, foot-stompingly fine theatre experiences I’ve had in a long time. Encore!
The Moderate Soprano at Duke of York’s Theatre St Martin’s Lane, London until 30 June 2018. Running time approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes including an interval. For more information and tickets please visit the website.