Review: Roger Allam Stars in The Moderate Soprano

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The Moderate Soprano is a tricky one. It has many things going for it, most notably the wonderful Roger Allam who is always worth the price of a ticket. But this new play from David Hare on the creation of Glyndebourne Opera falls into the trap of getting caught up in conveying facts, rather than creating a piece of engaging emotional drama.

Glyndebourne Opera – an opera house built, rather unusually, in the middle of the Sussex Downs – was the brainchild of the eccentric wealthy landowner, John Christie (played here by Roger Allam). Since its creation in 1934, the Opera has become something of a British institution.

Yet what this play focuses on is not just the extent to which this, and perhaps art more generally, relies on the commitment of an individual, but how also Glyndebourne, this most British of institutions, was built on the talents of a committed group of German refugees, opera creatives fleeing Hitler’s violent and repressive rule who John hires to help him bring his vision to life.

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It’s an interesting premise. But all of these are facts. What I want from theatre is always story. What is the story here? What am I investing in? What is the character/plot blend that is going to grab me and allow me to learn all these facts but yet also appeal to my emotions and need for insight into the human condition?

And this is where The Moderate Soprano comes unstuck.

Because crucially there isn’t much in the way of a story.

Conflict is pretty thin on the ground – the opera house gets built, it’s a bit of a rough design, but everybody makes the most of it and it becomes a bit of a success, despite a pretty poor review in The Times.

Nor is there much investment in any complexity in any of the characters, nor do they seem to face much in way of troubles during the Glyndebourne project – John Christie is a bit of an eccentric, the project costs him a lot of money but he’s too rich for the odd loss to bother him so no real problem there. And his wife Audrey (Nancy Carroll) – the Moderate Soprano in question – well, she was a middle-of-the-road opera singer at the beginning and that doesn’t really change.

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Nor does the Glyndebourne project challenge much of the dynamics in the group, though there is a very, very tenuous attempt to link Audrey‘s illness after the war with the project. But no, it all seems to go off okay except for the odd bickering here and there.

We’re certainly told plenty about the characters – each of the German refugees get their monologues in the spotlight, regaling ostensibly the Christies but actually us with what they experienced in Nazi Germany, and what forced them to flee. But because we’re told not shown, it’s hard to care.

And really, there is an awful lot of tell rather than show going on here.

We’re told Audrey has a weak voice, but we never get to hear it, or see her struggling audition for the men from Germany who will have the say on who’s in and who’s out. Another example is towards the end when John Christie tells Rudolf Bing (George Taylor), who we find out post-war has taken on running the Met in New York, that he “was always the smoothest shark in the sea.” Really? We never saw that? Where did that come from? Show us, please, don’t tell us.

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For those expecting a Farinelli and the King-esque blend of opera and theatre, you will be disappointed. We are never treated to a live performance from the Moderate Soprano herself, though that may make sense as of course Farinelli was one of the greatest singer sin the history of opera, whereas, here, Audrey has a “small voice.”

But, in spite of all of that, there is enough to keep you engaged for the 100 minutes running time.

There’s Roger Allam, of course. Roger Allam. My god, that man is talented. He manages to wrench from this almost eccentric caricature a man of flesh and blood whose arrogance, poor social skills and lack of self-awareness masks a deep commitment to the arts and their place in society. This is a man with a profound commitment to bring arts to the people of Britain – even if they don’t yet realise they need it.

Jeremy Herrin directs and, as ever, he brings a great energy to the production. There’s some smart use of stage space that prevents any break for scene changes, and keeps the play pushing on through.

There’s also some witty repartee on the perils of Mozart and some engaging debate about the purpose of art and the part it plays in our life – should it be front and centre, or easy to pick up and put down?

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But fundamentally this is a dramatized piece of exposition rather than a play, and it is hard to get past that. Luckily there’s enough talent in the creatives for this to be enough to engage you for the time that you’re watching it but, sadly, this isn’t a piece of theatre that you’ll be thinking about for days or months afterwards.

Hampstead Theatre, London to November 28, 2015

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