Glyndebourne has become a British institution: an opera house on a large country estate deep in the heart of the Home Counties. David Hare goes back to its beginnings with a portrait of its founder John Christie, a patrician landowner, every bit the eccentric Englishman, with a strong sense of public duty and a stronger one of self-righteousness. “The Moderate Soprano” is not, however, mere heritage drama, but a nuanced argument around the means of making art and the implications of its funding.
The opera house was a pet project. Christie (Roger Allam) had previously installed a state-of-the-art organ to lure a friend to the estate and, in 1931, ordered the construction of a 300-seat theater for his new, young wife, an opera singer with a modest voice — hence the title — named Audrey Mildmay (Nancy Carroll).
With the rise of the Nazis, Christie finds himself recruiting a crack-team of German emigres — the conductor Fritz Busch (Paul Jesson), forced out of the Dresden State Opera for his employment of Jewish artist, as well as the director Carl Ebert (Nick Sampson) and the young producer Rudolf Bing (George Taylor), who would later run the Met. The two sides tussle for artistic control of the new venture: the idealistic Christie convinced he knows best, pushing for “Parsifal” in the opening season; his artists pointing out that Wagner needs more than the string quartet Glyndebourne can accommodate.
Hare has always latched onto individuals. From Lambert La Roux in “Pravda” to Labour Party leader George Jones in “The Absence of War,” his protagonists often embody wider public dilemmas. Christie fits in with the best of them. He is complex and contradictory, a bumptious, almost autocratic figure but also a gentle, public-spirited and determined man. Allam, sporting an egg-bald pate and squinting through circular specs, trousers pulled up over his belly, keeps him both likeable and ludicrous. For all his conviction, he’s blind to the limits of his knowledge: “I happen to be one of those people who knows what they’re talking about,” he snoots. The ghastly oil paintings in Rae Smith’s design suggest otherwise.
Admittedly, Hare’s writing around Christie can be somewhat transparent. Characters spout biographical tidbits and background info at each other, like talking encyclopedias, and Jeremy Herrin’s straightforward staging has them literally taking sides when arguing. Carroll does what she can to instill some emotion, shrinking into herself as Audrey’s radiance is reduced by disease, but the play mostly consists of discussions over drinks. You watch not for the story, but for the ideas swimming beneath it.
Britain is currently working out how to fund its art. State subsidy is down, slashed in the name of austerity, and institutions are increasingly dependent on donors. Against that, Christie cuts a contemporary figure: the meddling moneyman.
Patronage gives him more power than his talent or taste merit, and yet he insists on steering proceedings, meaning Busch and company must keep their proprietor happy and their program pragmatic. Their populist solution, Mozart, isn’t to Christie’s taste: “samey,” “jangly” and sentimental, he sulks, though he does approve of their high pricing structure, arguing great art merits an audience respect. In that, Hare neat draws a line between aristocracy and cultural elitism. Ebert declares Glyndebourne “the best hotel I’ve ever stayed in.”
Yet state subsidy isn’t without its attached strings, as the Nazis’ manipulation of opera in Germany so proves. Goering personally offers Busch the top job at Bayreuth, a gig for which many artists would swallow their pride and their politics to take. Hare makes it abundantly clear that, for all its idealism and purity, art is always subject to politics and power.
As such, it can never be everything it aspires to, and “The Moderate Soprano” sounds a melancholic note: it’s an elegy for things that fall short, for all the dreams that die tiny deaths. Hare’s best scene, where his writing is sparsest and most truthful, takes place at Audrey’s deathbed, years later. Christie sits by her side and, at her last request, lists the shows they staged at Glyndebourne, in many of which she starred. Mozart dominates; “Cosi Fan Tutti,” in particular. Of Wagner, not a trace. Allam’s voice sinks into a sigh.
Hare ends with a beginning, the strains of an orchestra warming up, as each character paces their pre-show routine alone. Busch steps in front of the stage, baton in hand, and turns, unexpectedly, to us — audience as orchestra — striking up the opening blasts of the Overture from “Figaro” that seem to reset your spine. The moment encapsulates all the beauty of potential, but also the collaboration at the very core of art. It needs us, the audience, just as much as its artists and impresarios. Today’s John Christies can’t afford to forget that.