Sunday, 29 April 2018
The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York's Theatre
There is a saying that behind every successful man is a woman and this is certainly the case regarding Captain John Christie. An Eton schoolmaster of private means, he had distinguished himself in battle during World War I. Marriage came to him relatively late in life, when he fell deeply in love with the much younger Audrey Mildmay. The fact that she was a professional opera singer certainly would have added fuel to his passionate flame as Christie had always been obsessed with the music of Wagner. It didn’t matter that Mildmay’s voice had a gentle timbre so was rather unsuited to singing in large auditoriums, Christie had fallen for her hook, line and sinker.
Moderate in the singing stakes she may have been, but she was certainly no slouch when it came to helping her husband realise his dream of constructing a theatre from scratch. It may have been his idea, but her practicality and ability to curb Christie’s stubbornness ensured that his dream became a reality. Along with the invaluable help from three refugees from Nazi Germany, conductor Fritz Busch, ex actor Carl Ebert and administrator Rudolf Bing, in 1934 a world class opera house in the grounds of Glyndebourne, Christie’s country house in the Sussex Downs was born. Christie brought these recommended men on board on realising that, despite his overflowing enthusiasm, a skill to blend drama and music into a whole experience was also required. It wasn’t always a match made in heaven and Mildmay was also crucial in calming her husband when his entrenched ideas clashed with their professional expertise.
David Hare wrote the Moderate Soprano in 2015 and following its opening in Hampstead is now ensconced in the Duke of York’s Theatre in St Martin’s Lane. The play opens in 1952 with Christie trying to console his dying wife by reminiscing about their early pre-war seasons at Glyndebourne and we’re immediately struck by his tenderness towards her. Flashback scenes then illuminate how he recruited the three emigres and subsequently tried but ultimately failed to bully them into always agreeing with him. There is comedy to be had from these various conflicts, even though the information about the personal backgrounds of the trio is rather long winded.
This moving play is as much a love story as it is an exploration of the importance of great art and our reliance on foreigners to achieve it. It is all credit to Director Jeremy Herrin and the cast, especially the superb Roger Allam as Christie and Nancy Carroll as his wife that we’re totally sucked into the life of this extraordinary couple. Not only does Allam bring the buffoonery of Christie to sparkling life, but we’re also aware that, despite his gentle, loving nature towards Mildmay, within him is a core of steel. Oh and of course, there aren’t many actors with as mesmerising a voice. Nancy Carroll, too, is on sparkling form.
Bob Crowley’s beautiful design evokes an English summer’s evening in a bucolic setting, whilst Luke Hall’s video ensures we know that the setting can only be the gardens of Glyndebourne. It made me think I should perhaps discover the delights of opera.