Hampstead Theatre, London (***)
Almost a year to the day since Roger Allam last appeared at Hampstead theatre in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, he’s returned in David Hare’s latest, a biographical portrait of the founders of Glyndebourne that suits him to a tee.
Playing the visionary, quixotic `Captain’ John Christie, Allam cuts a dash as the man determined to bring opera to the Sussex Downs. A man of gargantuan energy, a `democrat’ who nonetheless loved to get his own way, Allam, with balding pate and rotund stomach memorably conveys the firey spirit who at nearly 50 captured the heart of the much younger Carl Rosa singer, Audrey Mildmay.
Theirs was a love-match. And The Moderate Soprano (a reference to the estimation of Audrey’s singing talent) journeys backwards and forwards showing the obstacles and personality clashes involved in Glyndebourne’s birth, shared as it was between Christie and his wife and a trio of German exiles from Nazi Germany – conductor Fritz Busch and director Carl Ebert. At some point, too, a young Rudolf Bing (later of the Metropolitan Opera) appears on the scene.
Uncharacteristically, Hare plays a fairly straight bat in telling the Christie story of privilege and High Art. There are inevitably emotional upheavals to chart and some typically sharp apercus on the ironies of the creation of a very English institution by German exiles and the search `for the sublime’ (in Christie’s opinion, Wagner does it, Mozart he considers a bit `samey’). But the result is oddly solid, if in Jeremy Herrin’s production, appropriately, a moderate and civilising evening.
And, there are some ripe moments to savour in Rae Smith’s clever, opera house design by means of a pillar, a few billowing drapes and a dressing tables. Best of all is the technique Hare adopts of flashbacks between a dying Audrey and the early days, as if framing Christie’s melancholy `if only someone could tell you this is the best bit’ as a valdedictory on the enterprise and Audrey’s part in it.
Allam apart, Paul Jesson provides a delicious portrait of teutonic proportions as Busch, all cherubic grins but extremely moving in his account of his support of his German Jewish musicians and his subsequent dismissal because of it.
The Moderate Soprano runs at Hampstead Theatre to Nov 28, 2015
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Nov 2015