The Aix Cosi at Edinburgh

What was all the fuss about? As a consequence of press reports on Christophe Honoré’s production of Cosi Fan Tutte at Aix, the Edinburgh Festival administration decided to offer refunds to all those wishing to return their tickets. Anyone who did so would have missed a marvellous evening of musical theatre. Some aspects of the violence and “adult content”, the expression used in notices outside the auditorium, may have been toned down for performances in the Scottish capital, but in any event what we saw contained nothing offensive or untrue to the Mozart/Da Ponte original. I have always found it a dark piece exploring the tensions in human relationships arising particularly from infidelity and jealousy.To this, the Aix staging adds sexuality and racism, as the women become aware of the physical attractiveness of black bodies.Setting the opera in Mussolini’s African colony (superb designs by Alban Ho Van) gave a vivid coherence to the latter, the bemused responses of the natives to both their humiliation inflicted by the Italian military and the weird goings-on of the whites lending an authentic background to the director’s interpretation.

A sure sign that the audience was riveted as the drama evolved was that they gradually stopped applauding after the arias and ensembles as they began to appreciate that this would break the tension. What made it so riveting? The movements of the characters and extras in and around the performing space communicated the substance of the text with and through the music. Then there was the studied but also innovative characterisation: Ferrando (Joel Prieto) naively romantic, unbelieving; Gugliemo (Nahuel di Piero) thuggishly insensitive – a nasty piece of work; Fiordiligi (Lennike Ruiten) honest, loyal but frightened by the reality of herself; Dorabella (Kate Lindsay) wilful, impetuous with a capacity for self-destruction; Don Alfonso (Rod Gilfry) a swaggering know-all but, at the end, unable to control events; Despina (Sandrine Piau) brashly independent and courageous in her feminism. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, there was the musical dimension. The cast were first rate, Lennike Ruiten and Kate Lindsay especially bringing intensity to the colouring and phrasing of the vocal lines. In the pit Jérémie Rhorer at the head of the outstanding Freiburg Baroque Orchestra contributed a wholly compelling account of the score. From his hard-edged interpretation of the overture it was already clear that we were not in for a frivolous evening – and it wasn’t.