A cruel lesson: Christophe Honoré’s Così fan tutte from Aix

Mozart: Così fan tutte 

Is Così fan tutte an opera that’s ever suitable for children? Mozart and Da Ponte serve up the most cynical lesson in love. Perhaps that’s why it appeals to me. Don Alfonso sets out to prove that the fiancées of his two young soldier friends won’t remain faithful once temptation comes their way… even placing a wager on the outcome. When reviews of Christophe Honoré’s new production emerged from Aix-en-Provence, they ruffled feathers. The Edinburgh Festival – due to receive the Aix staging in August – issued an email warning to ticket-holders, advising that the French film director’s production was “provocative and sexually explicit”, promising to refund tickets purchased for under-18s.

The headline of The Guardian‘s review describes Così as a “frothy” opera – which is surely a misrepresentation of Kate Molleson’s question: “Does opera need a warning as soon as it skims away the froth?” Così is never frothy, even in pastel shades and a wedding breakfast scenario. Mozart subtitled it The School for Lovers and there are bitter lessons to be learned. Honoré takes those lessons to extremes, causing outrage from some Edinburgh patrons. A comment below The Guardian‘s review, reports “I was so shocked that I RAN AWAY during the first interval.” Another, beneath Richard Morrison’s review in The Times whines that calling the production ‘Mozart’s Così fan tutte‘ is “utterly defamatory”, attacking both director and critic. Unable to visit either Aix or Edinburgh, I watched the production yesterday, streamed on The Opera Platform, to see what all the fuss was about. Yes, it makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing, but it also completely gripped me from beginning to end.

Nahuel di Pierro (Guglielmo) © Pascal Victor

Nahuel di Pierro (Guglielmo)
© Pascal Victor

Honoré’s dark, provocative staging adds racism to misogyny, increasing the cynicism in the opera. It’s about men manipulating sexual power. He relocates the action from the Bay of Naples to Asmara in Mussolini-occupied Eritrea in the late 1930s. The first music we hear is The Gold in Africa – a mournful calypso song by Growling Tiger about Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, recorded in 1936 just before the Emperor Haile Selassie was forced into exile. Two slave women dance to this record. A third slave – a man – is strung up by his feet in the corner. A soldier smashes the shellac disc and threatens one of the women. Another – Guglielmo – rapes her during Mozart’s overture.

The action takes place in a garrison of Italian soldiers. Rod Gilfry’s Don Alfonso is an ageing colonial type (“straight out of Graham Greene” as pithily described by Morrison) who gropes the local women. His challenge forces Joel Prieto’s Ferrando and Nahuel di Pierro’s Guglielmo to blacken up as Dubats (African mercenaries). In an age where the idea of tenors “blacking up” to sing Otello is taboo, this is deeply provocative. And this opens the door to other taboos – the notion that Fiordiligi and Dorabella – colonial daughters – desire interracial sex. At the start of Act 2, in a courtyard where an Italian tricolore hangs limply, a black servant sensually sponges their legs as they decide which sister should end up with which Dubat, and then they use him as a plaything to try out their fantasies. Sadomasochism is suggested when Fiordiligi and Dorabella are handed whips as the Dubat lovers beg forgiveness.

Honoré delivers an even darker twist. Lenneke Ruiten’s Fiordiligi spots the men’s disguise when Ferrando showers off his blackface, but she chooses not to tell Dorabella and gives in to the idea, rubbing black make-up over her naked torso. There’s never any question here that the four lovers will be reunited at the end. The sexually liberated Dorabella, seemingly drunk at her ‘wedding’, isn’t quite sure which man she should now be with and snogs them both. Fiordiligi is sickened by it all and at the final curtain grabs a rifle and holds its barrel under her chin.

Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) and Kate Lindsey (Dorabella) © Pascal Victor/ ArtComArt

Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) and Kate Lindsey (Dorabella)
© Pascal Victor/ ArtComArt

Musically, it’s a terrific performance. Ruiten is a decent Fiordiligi, slightly constrained at the top of her register. Kate Lindsey’s cherry-ripe mezzo makes for a sensuous Dorabella, fiercely acted. Nahuel di Pierro’s smoky bass-baritone and Joel Prieto’s sweet tenor contrast well as Guglielmo and Ferrando, and Gilfry’s Don Alfonso is suitably gruff. Only Sandrine Piau’s Despina doesn’t look entirely at ease.

Louis Langrée draws out a sinewy sound from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, in a brusque, unsentimental reading to match the staging. In another nod to colonial racism, the Chorus of Cape Town Opera was imported.

No, not a production for children, but anyone who’s ever thought Così is froth should be made to watch Honoré’s uncompromising staging.

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