Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2023 Review: The Dialogue of the Carmelites

Barrie Kosky’s Sensational New Staging is Divine & Chilling

By Benjamin Poore
(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Whether you like Barrie Kosky’s stagings or not, they always have an enormous presence. Think of the Marlene Dietrich-inspired gorilla suit in his “Carmen” for the Royal Opera House, the inflatable Beckmesser caricature in the Nuremberg trial “Meistersinger”, or the eerie sea of ash and candles in his “Saul” for Glyndebourne.

The latter, highly acclaimed, meant anticipation was at fever pitch for this new staging of “Dialogue of the Carmelites” at the festival, with Robin Ticciati conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in their summer getaway to Sussex. 

A Wound that Never Heals

Spoilers follow, but only to praise fully a remarkable piece of work. Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera tells the story of a group of nuns who choose to go to the guillotine rather than submit to the demands of the revolution. Kosky sets the piece in a non-specific contemporary epoch (barring the quasi-eighteenth garb of Blanche’s family in the opening scene) in a raked, corridor-like rectangular box, somewhat medical and distressed. It serves as a convent, street, bedroom, and is mostly off-white, save for some eerily garish flower beds that roll in and out for one scene. The interchangeability of locations, rather than being banal, heightens and existential and psychological dimensions of the piece, as well as being grindingly claustrophobic. There is nowhere to run. 

Kosky is a director known for spectacle – his “Saul,” for example, features some ravishing set pieces – but this is remarkable for its focus, the sparing and exact use of high-impact moments that are part of the show’s grammar and punctuation and never window-dressing. The wall starts to weep blood in Act two – it is dark and thick, and you can hear the drips and globules land on the floor. It is completely smashed through – worthy of any West End spectacular – in a brilliant and unexpected coup de théâtre in the second half, as a bare, ascetic space is suddenly filled with the angry bodies of the mob. That wound in the set, never healed, is where the huddled nuns will go off one by one to meet their fate.

Alessandro Carletti’s exquisite monochromatic lighting dares to explore extremes of darkness and gloom. It achieves remarkable expressive variety with a restrained palette. 

This clarity of execution – so to speak – adds up to an equally penetrating and calculated moral and historical understanding of the opera. In Kosky’s hands, “Carmelites” is a piece about the holocaust, an interpretation that should’ve been staring us in the face all along given that Poulenc was the composer of the wartime cantata “Figure humaine.” The visual cues are precise and chilling: the walls could be a bunker, or perhaps the antechamber to the “showers” of the camps; the nuns are stripped and their clothes and jewelry taken away; their hair is cut – one wonders how that particular illusion is achieved night after night in a miracle of stagecraft. Their shoes, too, unobtrusively visible throughout the piece, end up in a pile at the opera’s close. 

Chilling Design

Alongside these brilliant design elements – Katrin Lea Tag deserves equal billing with Kosky – is a relentlessly embodied physical drama; their calling might be heavenward, but bodies and flesh define this world. Madame de Croissy’s drawn-out death is agonizing. She thrashes, shakes, flails, and eventually dies on top of Blanche, pinning her to the bed; no wonder she is so harrowed to see her body in the following scene. The chorus, led by Theodore Platt’s thuggish Officer, throws the nuns against the wall, then to the floor, herding them animals; a long fermata where the chorus shout, spit, and scream, goes on appallingly long. Karen Cargill’s Mère Marie tussles and prowls like a wounded animal. 

The moment with the greatest emotional impact is also the most understated, when Blanche takes the hand of Soeur Constance with the utmost delicacy, just before she goes to the scaffold – a tiny reminder that bodies are for love and tenderness as well as objects of cruelty and agents of violence. 

Almost as impressive as the singing – more later – are the non-musical elements of the sound design: the awful clicking of scissors in a harrowing unaccompanied scene where the nuns’ are clipped for execution; the horrifying screaming of one nun after they are undressed and hand over their jewelry as she is taken over by fright; the reworking of one dialogue scene into a chilling set of pre-recorded whispers, with Blanche isolated in front of a drop cloth in the dark; the sheer terrible volume of the guillotine sound itself (a friend at the performance, seated by the speakers, told me the Festival had called him some weeks before to warn him that it would be “quite intense.” They weren’t kidding.)

What will stick most of all was the sound of the shoes, hitting the far wall with a sickening thwack as the blade falls, adding a viscerally material element to what is normally only an audio element. I jumped out of my skin at the first one. 

Musically Powerful

“Carmelites” has a huge ensemble cast and any omissions here are simply a matter of space – the principal nuns (all 16 of them) all sing and act to the very highest standard, not least in Poulenc’s exquisite hymns that punctuate the score. 

Sally Matthews sang Blanche de la Force in a performance that would conventionally be called standout if the others weren’t also so pitch-perfect. Her character’s journey – from a dreamy ingenu to resolute martyr – is convincingly and thoroughly reflected in a stiffening of the vocal sinews, finding more raw textures and sheer power as the show goes on.

Constance, sung by Florie Valiquette, has a deliquescent, molten legato that is totally otherworldly.

Golda Schultz, the new Prioress, soared above the stave in a way like all charismatic and determined leaders should. 

Katarina Dalayman’s Madame de Croissy was searingly intense in her extensive monologue, harder-edged than the others, with a lyricism that is jagged, hard-won, and tempered by doubt and terror. It was a tour-de-force.

Karen Cargill had a similarly raw and desperate quality to her voice, and was unafraid of finding guttural – even rough – parts of her volcanic mezzo, especially in the intense final sequences of the opera. 

Robin Ticciati again exceled himself with the LPO in Poulenc (following last summer’s double bill), which is by turns slithering, brittle, and, in the awesome final scene, awesomely tragic. Part of his achievement is to bear with the daring silences he and Kosky impose between scenes, which are almost weightier than some of the monumental outbursts that close Acts one and Three; more generally the unity of purpose between director and conductor is remarkable.

Special mention should go to the distant, feather-soft clarinet solos inaugurating two scenes in the final act, as well as taut string playing whose pressure and intensity grows alongside the drama. 

The final secco chord of the piece is icily definitive – as chilling as Kosky’s unsparing and clear-sighted vision. My only complaint is that the beautiful framing offstage chorus in the final scene wasn’t that audible – a pity given the way it glowers with horror and collapse. This is opera with every element wholly realized, and absolutely, may God forgive me, second to Nun. 


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