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The Moderate Soprano
Duke of York’s Theatre, London
ANY play by David Hare, particularly one starring Roger Allam, ought to be worth a watch and my hopes were high for The Moderate Soprano, which finally makes it to the West End following a highly acclaimed preliminary run at Hampstead Theatre.
It tells the story of the founding of Glyndebourne Opera in 1934 by one John Christie — not the infamous killer, despite distractingly resembling him in name and appearance — a wealthy man used to getting his own way.
Having lived as a bachelor for years, Christie marries a beautiful young opera singer, then dreams up the kind of self-indulgent fantasy only available to the rich, namely the establishment of his own opera house in the middle of his country estate.
His dream becomes a reality. And to this very day the elite and poseurs congregate in those Sussex fields for champagne picnics, social advancement and a feast of opera — a sort of Glastonbury without the mud.
But it's Christie’s wife Audrey Mildmay who's the engineer of her husband’s success and the “moderate soprano” of the title. Bringing not only her sweet voice to his aid but also her personal charm and negotiating skills, she it is who forms the bridge between the spoilt, obdurate, controlling Christie and the three musical stars who, fleeing from nazi Germany, will ensure the project’s artistic success.
That’s the story, but it begs questions. How can we share Christie’s passion for a “sublime” musical dream when he is so arrogant and in any case we hear no music? How can we feel the tenderness of a marriage when all we see is a self-centred man lost in idiocy? How can we believe in Mildmay as the central character when she is so understated and never ever sings? Why is there no drama, no conflict and no sense of danger that the project will fail? What exactly is at stake?
Roger Allam is, of course, note perfect and Nancy Carroll brings refinement and grace to Mildmay, while director Jeremy Herrin shows reverence for the writer and designer Bob Crowley brings us gleaming organ pipes and rolling fields.
But this is a play that only tells us what we already know and, while fans of Glyndebourne may love it, it challenges nothing.
I wanted the sublime and it wasn’t there.
Runs until June 30, box office: theatreboxoffice.org/duke-of-yorks-theatre
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