Operatic ode to eccentricity
CONSPICUOUS IN David Hare’s latest play is a rebuke to the English. Not all of them, just those who are so insulated by the fair-play traditions of their country they find it hard to comprehend the foul behaviour of regimes abroad. Take the upper-class eccentric John Christie — here played by Roger Allam — who founded his own personal opera house at Glyndebourne in the early 1930s.
His first artists were the conductor Fritz Busch and opera director Carl Ebert both of whom were targeted by the Nazis — Busch because, as music director of the Dresden State Opera, he employed and advanced Jews, and Ebert because he was Jewish.
Their reunion at Christie’s Sussex house provides the play’s longest scene. It is here that the artists explain their humiliations to an incredulous Christie and his wife Audrey, played by Nancy Carroll. Christie is all ‘‘Really? Why would anyone be so beastly?’’ Or words to that effect. While Busch and Ebert (Paul Jesson and Nick Sampson) are open-mouthed at his raw ignorance.
True, this is 1934 and the full horror of the Nazis was not yet widely known. But we still get that naivety today with every buffoon Brit who gets caught in Saudi Arabia with hooch in the boot of his car or strips off on a revered Malaysian mountain and wonders why the locals are offended.
In Christie’s case, however, this blinkered view of the world is part of the tunnel vision that made the creation of a great British arts institution possible. And much of the pleasure provided by Hare’s characteristically verbose yet articulate play is derived from the collision between that brand of English upper-class arrogance, beautifully captured by Allam, and Busch and Ebert’s Teutonic, equally dismissive, equivalent. This is German artistic professionalism verses English amateurism. And, in this war, the Germans win.
Christie envisaged an opera house devoted to Wagner. But the Germans decide on Mozart as the most viable first production. “But is he any good,” asks the Wagnerian Christie, who once ran the Royal Opera House — Tunbridge Wells — and offered his audience Parsi- fal, to find that they only turned up for Gilbert and Sullivan.
Where the evening feels less sure-footed is in the relationship between Christie andhismuchyoungerwifeAudrey,née Mildmay, aka the “moderate” (as in ‘‘gentle’’ not second-rate) soprano.
The action switches between her being painfully ill at the end of her life and the period of energy and endeavour that characterised the opera house’s early years. Although this is moving and sad, it also feels emotionally manipulative, as if Hare feared the relationship was too sterile in life. More rewarding is his exploration of blind ambition and how an unwanted and unneeded opera house became a triumph. A perfect example of “If you build it, they will come”.
Classy: Roger Allam and Nancy Carroll in