The name John Christie will unfortunately be first associated by most people with the Notting Hill serial killer of the forties and fifties. But the subject of David Hare’s entertaining new play is the eccentric visionary who founded the famous Glyndebourne Festival Opera at his country estate in the Sussex Downs in 1934, inspired and supported by his ‘moderate soprano’ wife Audrey Mildmay. Glyndebourne may be as well known for being part of the summer season, with its evening-dress-wearing audiences picnicking on the lawns, as for its world-class opera productions, but the play reveals its early struggles to become established.
An old Etonian landowner who won the Military Cross in the First World War, ‘Captain’ Christie was a confirmed bachelor until almost fifty when he fell in love with the much younger Mildmay after hearing her sing. Having built a small opera theatre in Glyndebourne House, he recruited three exiles from Nazi Germany to run it: conductor Fritz Busch, director Carl Ebert and manager Rudolf Bing. It became a slender success but war, illness and death threatened its security until it was put on a sound financial footing in 1952 and then expanded into its flourishing modern form.
Moving back and forth between pre- and post-war, with the characters sometimes directly addressing the audience, Hare’s play is a warmly affectionate account of one man’s dream becoming reality, as we see Christie’s enthusiastically persuasive powers at work, with heated discussions about facilities, repertoire and above all his wife performing. But at its heart is a touching portrait of an unlikely love marriage that was a true partnership of common ideals, while the insights into the volatile political background on the Continent let air into what could become a self-absorbed, overheated glasshouse.
Jeremy Herrin’s well-modulated production is cleverly designed by Rae Smith to suggest a curtain-draped proscenium-arch stage within an elegantly furnished country house.
Roger Allam gives an impressively rounded performance as Christie, a mixture of endearing idiosyncrasy, peremptory patricianism and tender concern for Mildmay, played with diplomatic charm and practical common sense by Nancy Carroll. As Busch Paul Jesson gives a moving description of the cost of not collaborating with anti-Semitism, Nick Sampson is the artistically demanding Ebert and George Taylor the efficiently business-like Bing.
It may seem ironic that having made his name as a left-wing playwright in the seventies, Hare should now write this tribute to a cultural institution that is often regarded as an elitist recreation for social snobs, but he succeeds in making us engage with the pioneers who were passionately committed to putting Glyndebourne on the operatic map.
The Moderate Soprano is on at the Hampstead Theatre until 28 November. Tickets are £10–£35. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.