Opera review: Cosi fan tutte

It's been no secret that Christophe Honoré's production of Così fan tutte '“ co-commissioned by Edinburgh International Festival, the Aix-en-Provence Festival and ­others '“ would present Mozart's original 18th century Neapolitan farce in a new and ­troubling light.Sure enough, it's not Mozart's overture we first hear, but a scratchy recording of a 1930s song about the then Fascist Italian invasion of Ethiopia. In the shadowy Eritrean courtyard, two black women dance to the mention of Mussolini. The real overture hits in with ­provocative punch, and in a dark corner a soldier rapes one of the women..Così fan tutte ***Festival Theatre, Edinburgh.For a long while we are hooked by the plausibility of Honoré's timeshift. The ­characters are hideously sharpened by a ­context where sadistic menace is considered normal male practice, while the two ­colonial white women adopt an arrogance that is often more distasteful than charming.

Cosi fan tutte

As Don Alfonso’s partner-swapping manipulations take hold, and the love-­testing masquerade unfolds, the sordid irony of Da Ponte’s libretto bares ugly new teeth.

But fast-forward to the end of Act 1, and the sultry tension hitherto sustained by the cast, supporting actors and Cape Town Opera Chorus collapses into two-dimensional farce. It’s the one point where the actual text – the extraction of the kisses – seems to defeat Honoré. And though Act 2 recaptures much of the original electricity, it no longer entirely convinces.

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There is room, nonetheless, for Mozart’s music, the best coming from the pit and a burnished, steely Freiburger Barockorchester under Jérémie Rhorer.

Ferrando and Giglielmo (Joel Prieto and Nahuel di Piero) grow glowingly into their central roles, with Rod Gilfry’s Alfonso as potent ringmaster.

Some unevenness rocks Lenneke Ruiten’s Fiordligi, Kate Lindsey’s Dorabella is a convincing lush, and Sandrine Piau’s Despina has many showstopping moments.

If only it could have held our complete belief in what it was trying to say.