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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Moderate Soprano
Hampstead Theatre   Autumn 2015; Duke of York's Theatre Spring 2018

David Hare has written, and Jeremy Herrin directed, an amiable little docudrama – i.e., based on fact but with imagined scenes and personalities – about the founding of Glyndebourne, that most improbable opera festival on a private estate in deepest Sussex. 

In the 1930s millionaire businessman John Christie built a small theatre onto his stately home, driven by his love of opera and of his wife Audrey Mildmay, a talented if not superstar-level soprano. 

Hare finds Christie in 1934, recruiting refugees from Germany Fritz Busch, Carl Ebert and Rudolf Bing to form and run his opera company and then, with some comedy, struggling with them over who is to be in artistic control. 

Christie's greatest defeat is being forced to accept that his little theatre is not equipped to stage his beloved Wagner and must specialise in (ugh) Mozart. His greatest victory, aside from the project happening at all, lies in the professionals agreeing that Mildmay is legitimately talented enough to star in their opening seasons. 

Hare's dramaturgy in this play is minimal. The action is framed by chronologically later scenes of Christie comforting the dying Mildmay, and transitions are generally supplied by one character or another addressing the audience directly with exposition or comment. 

One long and barely believable scene has the totally ignorant Christie amazed to have the others explain all about Hitler, the Nazis and anti-Semitism to him as they might to a child. 

It is totally believable that an Englishman of Christie's class could have been – or chosen to be – that ignorant. But it is not dramatically plausible or effectively presented, with Roger Allam as Christie reduced to feeder lines like “Really?” and “Go on”. 

Hare does later provide Allam with a strong scene as Christie vehemently argues that audiences should be made to dress up, travel and pay exorbitant ticket prices (two pounds!), out of respect to the art and the artists. 

Nancy Carroll as Mildmay has a sweet moment as the soprano wonders whether she would have made it or even gone further without her husband's money and influence behind her, and the frame scenes of the ageing characters are touching. 

Paul Jesson (Busch), Nick Sampson (Ebert) and George Taylor (Bing) are not asked to do very much, and generously serve the play. 

The Moderate Soprano is ultimately more docu- than drama, but its little history lesson is pleasantly entertaining.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Moderate Soprano - Hampstead Theatre 2015

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