Duke of York’s Theatre, London – until 30 June 2018
I could tell you that it is worth going up West for the transfer of Hampstead’s fine play just to see Roger Allam (his fine quiff sadly suppressed under a bald wig) as John Christie, founder-owner of Glyndebourne’s opera house on the Sussex Downs, issuing one particular indignant horrified nod at the word “Mozart”. The resulting explosion – absorbed with sphinx-like placidity by his German-Austrian musical hirelings – is one to cherish. Christie, a small determined almost P.G. Wodehouse character, has tasted the sublime in Wagner’s great unwieldy Parsifal. So he finds Mozart: “samey…bit jngly…no sense of the spiritual…intrigue, silly girls and giggling and big wigs…it’s like playing cricket with a soft ball.”
I loved it at Hampstead, found it a “ heart-soaring, joyful and sad and humane piece”, its vindication of the picnic-rug and black-tie world of high-class opera was gorgeously unexpected from David Hare. It was after he dramatised his jaundiced memories of a constipated 1962 public-school in South Downs that the producer, Byam Shaw, suggested he take on the story of how John Christie, an eccentric wartime soldier and Eton science master, inherited the estate in the early 1930s and decided to build an opera house and a festival.
The “moderate soprano” of the title is his wife, the singer Audrey Mildmay, who Christie besieged with gifts and flowers until she married him: he was already 50. She died before him, leaving him bereft: her decline, and his nursing, bookend the play. For the festival seasons he recruited Rudolf Bing, Fritz Busch and Carl Ebert: it’s a memory-play of the interaction of those five determined characters.
Sometimes it is very funny, at times profoundly sad. For what Hare makes of John Christie’s story is not “heritage theatre” but a hymn to art and its ambiguities, an elegy for the passing of life and a portrait of a man self-willed, choleric, impassioned. Sometimes Captain Mainwaring, sometimes almost Eric Morecambe, he is absurd but awe-inspiring, a “character’ but also a deep and needy personality. Roger Allam is perfection: chubbed-up, in a bald wig, he becomes the bluff reckless middle-aged soldier who one night in Bayreuth discovered “the sublime – until I heard that music I had no idea who I was”. Line upon line he delights: “Hate music-lovers, awful people, do nothing but complain – but I love music!”.
With his team assembled and the first season coming, Christie reacts with explosive horror to Bing and Busch telling him it can’t be Wagner – “you’ve built a jewel box, not an epic theatre”. As for his furious insistence that opera-goers must wear boiled shirts and get on a train to deep Sussex on a working day, it is superb, and nobody could deliver it like Allam. These damn people must, he says, not just fiddle around with “ telephones and whatever they do in offices” then ‘take in a show’. They must accept “It’s their lives that are the sideshow! Opera’s the thing! And if it uses up their time and wipes out their savings so be it!”.
Nancy Carroll is a perfect foil as Audrey, sinking her identity and her art in his explosive will, loving him, her postwar decline tragic. Paul Jesson and Anthony Calf react wonderfully as Busch and Ebert, and this time round Jacob Fortune-Lloyd is a sinuous, sardonic Viennese smoothie Rudolf Bing, the maestro who spent war years working in Peter Jones, enjoying the hair salon because its febrile atmosphere was most like opera – “I love hysteria…Nietzsche said, for art there must be frenzy”.
The frenzy of a tubby, determined man with a yearning for sublimity receives, in this lovely play, the respect that it should. And on a second viewing, with the same reservation as at Hampstead – which is simply about a slightly too slow first half – other thoughts occur. The elegiac quality seems stronger: Audrey’s last moments, and his late sadness, are truly wrenching. And it makes sense at last that David Hare, never knowingly under-socialist, should have written it. Art has no politics, and while opera needs the money of the rich, it is in essence not upper-class: just sublimely human.