No wigs and ruffles but Mozart noir. Set in the late 1930s in Eritrea, this production of Cosi Fan Tutte exposes the violence and racism of a colonial occupation, and reveals the misogyny and cruelty of da Ponte’s libretto. Considered too shocking to produce in Mozart’s day, it’s justified to make it equally shocking to a modern audience.
Opening with the scratchy recording of a 1930s calypso about Mussolini’s rape of Africa, much goes on in the shadows, literally in Act One, as the rape of a black woman against the fort’s wall is casually enacted by a fascist soldier. To make it worse, the rapist is Guglielmo. The director, Christophe Honoré’s background as a filmmaker is shown by these graphic depictions of racism and serve to reveal the disdain which underlines the true feelings of the two lovers for their white ‘goddesses’.
But there is still froth, slapstick and beauty. The prayer for wind, ‘Soave sia il vento’ is sung simply and beautifully. At first the two ‘goddesses’ are flirtatious, but by Act Two their desire for their new suitors (their disguised lovers) is made even more taboo by the blacking-up as Dubat African mercenaries. Hints of a slave auction enumerating physical qualities is inspired, as is the women acting out their sexual fantasies on a black servant; but at times the stage business distracts from the main drama. Sandrine Piau as Despina performed some beautiful arias but her devil-may-care feminist stance is undercut by the sexual harassment she has to endure from the black servants.
The mezzo, Kate Lindsey as Dorabella, is brilliantly sexy and particularly humorous in her later drunken promiscuity, while in contrast soprano, Lenneke Ruiten’s Fiordiligi smears the blacking over herself, shame and desire contending in singing of exquisite erotic anguish. The tenor Joel Prieto as Ferrando and the bass Nahuel di Perro as Guglielmo are not as striking as the females but still impressive. Rod Gilfry as Don Alfonso has a pleasant baritone and is suitably cynical and careless. Jérémie Rhorer conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester emphasised the lightness and beauty of the score, ironically underlining the darkness of the action.