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Thread: Cosi fan tutte at Aix-en-Provence

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    Cosi fan tutte at Aix-en-Provence

    The title of this article does not contain the diacritic mark on the letter I in Così, to facilitate the URL link


    Così fan tutte, ossia la scuola degli amanti, dramma giocoso in two acts, sung in Italian
    Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
    Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte (original story)
    Premiered on January 26, 1790 at the Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria


    A new production of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, in co-production with Opéra de Lille, Korea National Opera, and Edinburgh International Festival

    Subtitled in French and English - Théâtre de l'Archevêché, June 30, July 2, 5, 8, 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19, 2016, at 9:30 PM - this review is of the third performance on July 5th.


    The Freiburger Barockorchester conducted by Louis Langrée
    Continuo by Roberta Ferrari
    Cape Town Opera Chorus, chorus master Marvin Kernelle
    Stage Direction by Christophe Honoré
    Sets by Alban Ho Van
    Costumes by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck
    Lighting by Dominique Bruguière


    Fiordiligi - Lenneke Ruiten
    Dorabella - Opera Lively interviewee Kate Lindsey (read her interview [here])
    Despina - Opera Lively interviewee Sandrine Piau (read her interview [here])
    Ferrando - Joel Prieto
    Guglielmo - Nahuel di Pierro
    Don Alfonso - Rod Gilfry


    For more than ten years I upheld the Glyndebourne staging of Così fan Tutte by Nicholas Hytner (conducted by Iván Fischer) as the absolute best rendition of Mozart's masterpiece. Until today. The great French writer and film director Christophe Honoré in his third attempt at directing opera (he previously did a Dialogue des Carmélites and a Pelléas et Mélisande for the Opéra de Lyon), has just surpassed Hytner, with a most definitive Così. All good things must end and one day someone else will take the title from Honoré, but I suspect that it will not happen any time soon. Oh well, it's just my title... no International Opera Awards title - but I wouldn't be surprised if my internal compass is followed by some major honor for this phenomenally brilliant staging. Finally someone gives to this opera all the darkness that has always been there but got smothered by the light comedy.

    Reader beware; this Così is not for the faint of heart. According to Kate Lindsey who mentioned it to us in her exclusive Opera Lively interview, there were lots of booing in the opening night. Apparently the public is getting used to it and the positive reviews must have made an impact, because while there was heckling in two occasions today (by the same lady, who protested loudly in two scenes), everybody else in the theater shushed the heckler, and the audience applauded deliriously at the end. Kate must be happy for Christophe Honoré now, and oh boy, it's well deserved.

    I'm still under the impact of the perfect Pelléas et Mélisande of yesterday, especially after having interviewed today two of the P&M interpreters, with one more tomorrow. So the bar has been set pretty high, and being live theater what it is, I can't say like I did yesterday regarding P&M that today's performance was immaculate. There were a couple of minor flaws (we'll get to those). Overall, however, the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence did it again, putting on stage an extraordinary product.

    As usual, let's go element by element, attributing a score to each item of the show, using our habitual system.

    The musical side, first:

    Tonight we had a Baroque ensemble with period instruments performing the music, the Freiburger Barockorchester. While the Théâtre de l'Archevêché is relatively small and with good acoustics, it is still an open air theater, and naturally the sounds from the pit weren't as full as in those made by the Philharmonia yesterday, playing indoors. Even though this is entirely understandable and couldn't be otherwise (it's completely appropriate for Mozart, by the way), it did leave me cold for a while, until I settled down from the aural stratosphere that I was still navigating in my dreamy state (I couldn't take P&M off my head the whole day, today). But sure, the orchestra was delicate and precise, and maestro Langrée confirmed his excellent reputation as a Mozart specialist (it is not for nothing that he is the Artistic Director of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center). I don't know if it's because I finally let go of my dreamy state or if the orchestra just warmed up, because I found them better in the second act. A+ for orchestra and A+ for conducting.

    Singing frightened me a bit in the first half of the first act. The two young male singers took a long, long time to warm up, which must have to do with what Kate Lindsey told me: the first act is always hard to sing in Aix-en-Provence when it is in the open air venue, due to the heat. They do push the beginning of the show to 9:30 PM, but Aix is one hot place in the summer. Kate was right, although she was only correct regarding the others: she jumped in at full speed and was by far the best singer in the first act. Her colleagues did catch up to her in the second act when everybody pretty much reached vocal perfection. But in the first act, other than the boys sounding thin at first, there were also pitch control problems by Rod Gilfry, and agility problems for Lenneke Ruiten in "Como scoglio" when she slowed down in the coloratura and fell behind the orchestra twice.

    I had heard Kate live in The Tales of Hoffmann and liked her very much, but this meatier role of Dorabella was a better vehicle to display her prowesses. She did well top to bottom, beginning to end, and effortlessly made our A++ score. She also projected much more strongly than her two female counterparts. Lenneke seems to benefit from the lower dynamics. She was sublime in her more introspective and soft aria in second act, but less successful in the forceful "Como scoglio" in first act, like I said. I grant her a score of A.

    Sandrine Piau was very comfortable in her soubrette role of Despina, and handled it easily and precisely - not only in her more declamatory and easier passages in first act, but also in the more forceful and faster lines when she is disguised as the doctor and the notary. A+.

    I had never heard Nahuel di Pierro, the young bass from Argentina, and I was very pleasantly surprised with him. After the initial warm-up problems, he unleashed a powerful and well modulated voice. A+

    Regarding his colleague Joel Prieto (a native of Spain, raised in Puerto Rico), while he possesses a beautiful light tenor instrument, I was slightly less impressed with the musicality of his phrasing. He still did very well and deserves an A.

    Rod Gilfry paradoxically, being so experienced, was a notch below his companions. It's the second live performance I see with him in which he seems a bit less involved (I had the same impression in The Merry Widow at the Met). Again, it was nothing serious, and he still scores an A-, rounding up a cast that is a straight A one, even though they weren't all A++ like the ones in Pelléas et Mélisande yesterday [note to self - can I please stop thinking of P&M?].

    So, the average in terms of vocal performance is between A and A+, and given that the orchestra and conductor also got A+, we'll say that musical side of today's performance was a very successful A+.

    Now, where this show really excelled, was in the acting and the staging.

    The Aix Così is both very dark and very sensual. First of all, the two young ladies Kate and Lenneke looked gorgeous and certainly added to the Aix-en-Provence high temperature, in various states of partial undress including a topless scene by Lenneke. Both artists displayed excellent acting. A lot of what they expressed, besides their exquisite singing, was in their facial expressions. Kate for instance conveyed annoyance and contempt very powerfully, while Lenneke was simply phenomenal in her disgust and despair. Lenneke was the ultimate image of gloom and dejection in the last 15 minutes of the opera, and she is to be commended by the perfection that she attained in those scenes. Kate had a scene in which she is surrounded by three men, and she produced a veritable explosion of sensuality that left the audience breathless. They both get A++ for their acting. Being the male roles a bit more one-dimensional, I don't think that Joel and Nahuel had the same opportunity to shine like the women did. They were very correct the entire time, and both get an A. Rod was more nuanced, in a very sadistic and aggressive Don Alfonso. A+

    The case of Sandrine Piau is an interesting one, and I'm a bit at a loss to make some sense of it. At times she seemed miscast as Despina - not vocally, like I said (she did the soubrette voice to perfection), but mind you, not because of any shortcomings, but rather due to an abundance of assets. You look at Sandrine and you see this beautiful and sophisticated French lady. Despina, the character, is a vulgar woman, and as much as Sandrine is a good actress, she just can't help but being elegant. I think she just can't turn off her classy side, so she was a bit bizarre as Despina. On the other hand when she got disguised she became more convincing - exactly because her attire hid her beauty and elegance. She was able to show comedic flare, but again, it is strange because this staging is not funny at all, so even though her role asks for it and she did it well, it becomes a bit off, in this setting. What could Sandrine do? In this dark, bleak, sadistic and depressing Così, maybe we'd need to just do away with the character Despina all together - but of course we can't, because she is an essential character and Mozart did write extensive music for her. So in part the problem is not with Sandrine, but with the character Despina being a bit out of place in the universe created by Christophe Honoré.

    Also, the Despina of Christophe Honoré seemed incongruent with her usual self in one additional way: she is less assertive than what we're used to see. She seems frightened of men in the first act - it seems like all women are prey in this environment including street-wise Despina, and while she recovers her assertiveness in parts of the second act, the entire arc seems a bit odd or at least unusual. I look forward to interviewing Sandrine tomorrow; I'll ask her about it and update this part of the review once I collect her impression. So, I'll just not rate her acting. I assume that she did what the stage director asked of her, and the ambivalence is in the staging rather than in the artist.

    [Edit, the next day: after speaking for one hour with Sandrine, I'm in awe of her acting prowess. The impressions I had above were entirely intentional and requested by the stage director. Sandrine did try to portray a classier and more elegant Despina - the gist of it is that she is a fallen woman with the best part of her life behind her. Sandrine did it so well, to the point of conveying exactly the impression I had above, that she deserves an A++ for her acting. She details it more in her fascinating interview: stay tuned for it.]

    Now, what is so special about Honoré's concept? Like I said, it is brilliant and it works. The opera setting is updated to the time of the Second World War and moved from the bay of Naples to the Eritrean city of Asmara. It's Mussolini's new Rome, under Italian colonization. The two boys are soldiers of the Italian army, and the two girls are white daughters of colonists, living around the black natives in a relationship of contempt and racism. The two soldiers come back disguised in blackface - something that would have profoundly shocked American audiences (but we are in Europe). Whites are quite abusive to blacks, including the raping of a young black woman by Guglielmo. The two girls also use black men as sexual playthings, and in two occasions they act in very sexually abusive ways towards a young black men. Matters of infidelity don't seem to count as much when sex is had with the natives, conveying a notion (all too common in certain colonial societies) that they aren't people but rather things. Dorabella at one point aggressively orders the black men to kneel in front of her.

    Still, one of the main topics of this staging by Honoré as underlined by Kate in her interview, is that desire is stronger than anything else for a human being. She is somewhat surprised to realize that she is sexually attracted to the race she despises, and unlike in the libretto, she ends up having sex not only with the disguised Ferrando, but also with a black man. According to Kate, this staging is ugly because racism is ugly but it does exist, and Honoré wasn't trying to make a particular point, but actually just depicted things as they were in colonial Eritrea, and continue to be in some parts of the word to this date.

    Mozart's and Da Ponte's opera is about power imbalances in gender relations, and there is nothing that screams of this imbalance more than rape and racism, so the update and transposition work.

    This isn't the only alteration infused by the stage director. A very fundamental part that differs from the libretto is that Fiordiligi, unlike Dorabella, understands what is going on mid-way. She catches Ferrando with the blackface painting washing out from him when he showers. She is shocked, but then decides that she desires him anyway and kisses him. She proceeds to them spread blackface on herself and tries to "go native" - this is her topless scene in which she spreads blackface paint on her breasts as well. This attempt at fully exploring her sexuality is interrupted by her actually having to hide in the same shower when the two supposed Albanians come back, so she overhears them talking, and she learns about the whole trickery. She sees it when Guglielmo gets enraged by learning that she made love to Ferrando and calls her names, and then proceeds to displace his rage into the young black woman that he rapes. She witnesses the rape. From that point on Fiordiligi is damaged goods. She never recovers. She goes along with the charade of the fake wedding but remains despondent and depressed for the duration, and does not reconcile with Guglielmo at the end (while Dorabella and Ferrando do). By the way Dorabella who seems wilder from the beginning and more willing to explore her sexuality (which is also in the libretto but not to the extent that Honoré did) can only go along with that by appearing completely drunk - so in some way she must have suspected of the trickery as well, and is just in more denial than Fiordiligi.

    Another alteration is that Fiordiligi takes a rifle with her and leaves the stage in the last scene, then we hear a shot. We don't know if she fired a shot in the air, enraged, or if she shot herself to commit suicide.

    Why did I like these alterations so much, when usually I'm not very pleased when a director changes the psychological or symbolic arc for a character? Because I always felt that this is the true nature of Così fan tutte. It just isn't a comedy. The situation is too terrible, and what is done to these young people is too horrific. It was about time for a stage director to get it right, with an appropriate reading of the libretto. Just pretending that this is all a light comedy with mistaken identity and the girls are completely innocent of the entire thing and surprised at the end, stretches too much the suspension of disbelief. They did have to be onto it as well, right? Otherwise, why did Mozart make a point, in terms of stage instructions, of saying that the men should not wear completely face-altering disguise?

    And is Don Alfonso just a benevolent figure trying to teach some sense into the heads of these naive young people in the school for lovers of the title? No way, right? The situation screams of perversion, voyerism, sadism, and vicarious enjoyment of all these sexual shenanigans. Don Alfonso in Honoré's staging is just plain evil, which is evident in how he manhandles the poor Despina at the end.

    Anyway, what a satisfactory and wild ride! I'd call this, the real Così fan tutte.

    I left out a few elements: the chorus, hailing from South Africa, is perfect and made of not only good singers, but gifted actors and actresses. Blocking is very sophisticated, of the highest quality. There are numerous points made in the movements of soldiers, chorus members and supras, that underline the exploitative relationships and the power structurees in very subtle ways. The showers on the right of the stage become important in the blocking as well, and the ins and outs from the interior of this forteress to the streets and vice-versa are very well done.

    Lighting is great - or the lack thereof. Appropriately (unlike one of the few objections that I made to yesterday's P&M staging) it is all very dark, just relying on what seems like street lamps and fire pits.

    The sets and costumes are ultra-realistic. We see in act I the street side of some fortress or military barrack, and on act II it all switches to the interior of that same structure. Props with fascist themes are employed as well as African imagery, everything extremely well done. Make-up is great including body paintings for the fake marriage scene. In summary, the entire physical production is A++.

    Overall, I'm tempted to grant another maximum score of A++, but won't do it because musically it had a few glitches, so, we'll go with A+. The Festival continues to display outstanding quality, and I look forward to the Handel piece tomorrow.

    Let's finish with some production pictures gently sent to us by the Bureau de Presse, all credited to Pascal Victor. Don't forget to click on our coverage portal for the Aix festival for links to the other reviews and interviews: click [here].

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    Opening scene, Guglielmo with the woman he will rape in a later scene
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    Don Alfonso gets beaten up in the opening scene
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    Lenneke and Kate
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    The whole troupe
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    Don Alfonso with members of the chorus
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    Kate and Lenneke
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    Don Alfonso (Rod) and Despina (Sandrine)
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    Rod, Sandrine and chorus members
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    Ferrando and Dorabella
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    Fiordiligi and Ferrando
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    Despina and Fiordiligi
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    Ferrando and Dorabella
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    Curtain calls - Kate, Joel, Lenneke, Nahuel, and Sandrine
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    Curtain calls
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    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); February 17th, 2018 at 08:41 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Arte will be broadcasting tomorrow night's performance on TV and streaming it live on

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