Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 29th July 2023.
I feel obliged to preface what follows with a few caveats. First, I am very much in a minority in not being overwhelmed by this production (though my partner was in agreement) both as regards the critics and the rest of the audience at the performance I attended if the applause for Barrie Kosky's appearance was any guide. Second, I've seen a few Kosky productions over the years (usually in Edinburgh) and I can't think of a single one that really blew me away compared to his unstaged concerts of Yiddish opera and Weill. Third, I was very tired. Nevertheless I have to come back to this - the previous occasion I saw this opera live, the Royal Opera House/Robert Carsen production (reviewed here) - I found it overwhelmingly powerful. This performance, for me, did not achieve a similar punch.
My first issue was designer Katrin Lea Tag's set. It's a roughly triangular room, the white walls oddly stippled, and with a single narrow entrance/exit at the rear. This has to serve as the Marquis's house, all of the various rooms in the convent, and the execution space at the conclusion. I never really felt I had a concrete sense of where we were supposed to be, despite the period costumes of the opening scene. Having, for about two thirds of the show, only the single point of access at the back coupled with the closed in nature of the rest of the set should create the claustrophobic atmosphere the work needs, but I can only say I found it much less effective in this regard than the Carsen production where so much of that effect was achieved by the bodies of the mob - with a consequent much greater sense of their threat. That one point of access also makes set changes, despite the minimal amount of set, cumbersome to achieve (though I think a factor here may also be Kosky's determination to slow down the action which we'll come back to). After the interval (spoilers) one of the walls is breached. Others in my party found this an enormously effective coup de theatre but again I found the mob here, despite the spitting and physical violence, less threatening than I recall it in the Carsen production. There are also smaller annoyances, the (presumably) blood trickling down the wall in the first half I thought excessive, the production of the flowers from under one of the walls cumbersome.
My second difficulty after the set design was Kosky's approach to the work's themes. He leans into an idea of hysteria - most particularly with Sally Matthews's Blanche, but also with what I found the tiresome heavy breathing of the Chevalier, and the outbreak of panicked cries from one of the nuns just before the final scene. Now I'm not saying that the text doesn't support the idea of hysteria - whether religious or revolutionary, but I do think that Kosky is ultimately reluctant to see a positive power in faith (with the exceptions of Madame Lidoine, and perhaps in part of Constance). I found this problematic. On this occasion, unlike with the Carsen production, I wasn't convinced as to why they'd agreed to take the vow, or why they go on to execution, or, perhaps most problematically, why Blanche returns at the last to join the other nuns in death. It also seemed to me that the undermining of nobility in faith is at odds with Poulenc's music where the setting of the religious texts in particular is so powerfully asserting it.
The one character who seemed to me to really transcend this was Golda Schultz's utterly compelling Lidoine - for me the finest performance of the evening. Vocally she transfixed me from her first entrance, and after an opening scene where she over gestures (echoes of Sellers) I found her acting compelling. The tableau of her knelt in agonised prayer was one occasion when Kosky's approach of lingering on images at the end of scenes really worked for me. She was similarly deeply moving in the prison scene, and it strikes me as revealing that she achieves that with virtually no movement at all.
I've made a few mentions now of the way the action is slowed, particularly it seemed to me after the interval, by lingering on tableaux at the end of each scene. Part of my objection to this was that I increasingly felt Kosky was determined to impose particular views on me about character and my instinct was to rebel. But I think my more serious objection is that it slows down the drama when it most needs to keep moving forward to the grim tragedy of the final scene.
I've already mentioned Golda Schultz's spell-binding performance. Of the rest of the singers Karen Cargill's powerful, forbidding Mere Marie and Florie Valiquette's Constance are also especially strong - and I would note that Constance's comments here about the old Prioress did make me think anew about the idea that the Prioress has got Blanche's death by mistake. I previously heard Sally Matthews sing Blanche at the Royal Opera. Vocally she is very fine but because of the production the character didn't move me as it did there. I also felt that Katarina Dalayman's Old Prioress was not in the same league as Deborah Polaski at Covent Garden. Again, I'm not convinced that Kosky's approach of overdoing the spasms and the groaning is helpful. I'm perfectly prepared to concede that this, like the heavy breathing and the panicked cries may be more true to life, but I do think on stage such things easily tip over into seeming excess - and here they did for me. How much more powerful, I wonder, might that panic in the final scene have been if we'd had nothing similar earlier on? But the other problem for me is I think the Old Prioress needs more vocal heft, in particular when she commits Blanche to Mere Marie's care. At the Royal Opera the moment had a terrifying power - here the same effect was in the orchestra, but Dalayman didn't have the vocal weight to match it, at least from where I was sitting. The ensemble of nuns sang powerfully and movingly, and the mob chorus were similarly vocally impressive.
In the pit the London Philharmonic were on outstanding form and Ticciati both loved details and where needed drove the drama home. I did sometimes want more momentum but I suspect its absence was not a consequence of Ticciati lingering too much musically but of Kosky's pauses between scenes.
As I noted at the outset I am very much in a minority on this one, but I can only come back to where I started. In advance I expected to be emotionally harrowed. Instead, I found myself too often at a distance, and remembering aspects of the Carsen production and feeling that this version was falling visually and emotionally short.