Monday 18 July 2016

Mozart - Così fan tutte (Aix-en-Provence, 2016)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così fan tutte

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2016

Louis Langrée, Christophe Honoré, Lenneke Ruiten, Kate Lindsey, Sandrine Piau, Joel Prieto, Nahuel di Pierro, Rod Gilfry

ARTE Concert - 8th July 2016

Categorised as an opera buffa and based on a rather frivolous concept, there is unquestionably a darker side to the morals and attitudes expressed Mozart's Così fan tutte and you don't necessarily need to view from an 'enlightened' modern perspective to see it that way. It's true that most recent productions have tended to put the emphasis on the twisted nature of the game play and the sexual politics of Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto, but few go as far as Christophe Honoré in this new production for the 2016 Aix-en-Provence festival.

Surprisingly a very popular work with film directors at Aix (Patrice Chereau and Abbas Kiarostami have both done productions of this opera for the festival in the past), the dark ambiguities of Così fan tutte and its 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' machinations have also been explored by Michael Haneke for the Teatro Real in Madrid. French filmmaker Christophe Honoré's take on the subject is a distinctive one, where the setting of Ethiopia in 1930 under the control of Mussolini and the actions of the Gugliemo and Ferrando as Fascist soldiers immediately suggests a turn not only towards a dark treatment but a particularly unpleasant one.

Even as the overture is played out, we see Gugliemo and Ferrando sexually harass and abuse the native Ethiopian women. It's a matter of power and conquest and Honoré clearly intends to draw a parallel between the actions and attitudes of racist soldiers with men's attitudes towards women as they are viewed in Così fan tutte. The men's friend Don Alfonso - who might be an official from the administrative or diplomatic corps in the country - tells them not to be fooled by airs of sophistication and pretence of purity in the white women from their own race. He's convinced that at heart, their own girlfriends, the sisters Flordiligi and Dorabella, are no better than the black native women that they casually frequent and assault.

Well, to all appearances they are not regarded or treated much differently, although both men of course would deny it. They certainly don't accept Don Alfonso's proposition that the women would ever let themselves be seduced by inferior black men and are prepared to bet on it. Pretending to be called off to the front with the army, Gugliemo and Ferrando return disguised as black foreigners to put Flordiligi and Dorabella to the test. Their maid Despina, who is in on the game and has a thing for the native men herself, tells the women that they are well off without their lovers, who are probably unfaithful to them with the native women (and how!), so they should take advantage of the two striking dark-skinned gentlemen who have just appeared declaring undying love for them.

As much of a false equivalence as it might seem to compare the conquest and rape of the native population of an African colony with the power that men exercise over women, and do it moreover in the context of a comic opera by Mozart, this is indeed the crux of the director's argument in relation to the work. Does it stand up to scrutiny? Well, it sounds like a tough sell, but it's no harder to swallow than Mozart and Da Ponte's play on male and female relationships, and in practice it proves to be much more convincing than the awkward contrivances of the comic plot. If you've ever felt any uneasiness at the attitudes expressed in Così fan tutte, well, this production only amplifies that feeling. Surprisingly however, not only is Mozart and Da Ponte's work able to sustain this extreme interpretation, but it actually thrives with a bit of added realism.

Christophe Honoré ensures that every element of the production is geared towards making it real and keeping it in touch with the underlying premise of the opera. Alban Ho Van's sets depicting the exterior and interior of an army garrison in an Ethiopian town are strikingly realistic, enhanced by the fine use of lighting. Directed for the screen it even looks cinematic with the camera angles used and a widescreen CinemaScope presentation. The setting is only as good and as credible as the action that takes place within it and Honoré's direction is outstanding. The singing isn't perhaps as virtuosic as you might expect, sounding slightly underpowered in pretty much every role, but the characterisation and acting performances are thoroughly convincing, and even a little troubling.

Honoré is a great film director, and his experience in working with actors shows and really pays off as far as the ambitions of this production are concerned. With an earthy feel to the period instruments of the Freiburger Barockorchester under the direction of Louis Langrée and committed singing performances, this is a Così full of heat, passion and wild eroticism and certainly the most convincing production I have ever seen for this particular Mozart opera. As horrendous and abusive as the treatment often is, the director nevertheless brings much more to Così fan tutte than just a subversive little twist that sets out to shock. Rather it supports and emphasises the importance of Mozart and Da Ponte's themes by pushing them to their limits and seeing how well they stand up.

Surprisingly, for all Così fan tutte's reputation as a comedy, it copes well with the added weight of Christophe Honoré's direction and it even succeeds in revealing other dimensions. It shows the depth of passion and a revelling in the pleasures of the flesh that Mozart and Da Ponte could only suggest, but it also shows the abuse that be inflicted when these forces are misused or misplaced, and that a happy ending is not guaranteed. The important message it has for us however is that we are all free to love whoever we choose and that we are all equally empowered by love. Men and women, black or white, we're all the same - Così fan tutti.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert