Gail Eichenthal has traveled to France where she is attending the Festival D’Aix-en-Provence. She’ll be sending dispatches from the festival along the way, this is her first.
Soprano Lenneke Ruiten as Fiordiligi and mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Dorabella bring unabashed sensuality and exquisite vocal lines to their portrayals of Mozart’s scheming sisters in “Cosi”.
It is not opera business as usual at the 2016 Aix-en-Provence Festival, which runs until July 21 in venues all over town. Never has been business as usual here. Take the opening work this year, a shattering new production of “Cosi fan Tutte”, splendidly conducted by Louis Langrée and performed by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, the Cape Town Opera Chorus, and a uniformly terrific cast.
This is the same opera that in 1948 inaugurated the festival. But at the time, “Cosi” was almost unknown anywhere in France, even in this sparkling, music-adoring city, both medieval and modern.
Aix is the birthplace of composer Darius Milhaud—the namesake of the town’s major music conservatory—and an arts capitol for centuries. You can still visit Paul Cezanne’s studio down the road, where the surrounding landscape, topped by Mont Sainte-Victoire, is basically a Cezanne canvas. I asked Emilie Delorme, director of the Festival’s ambitious Academy for pre-professional instrumentalists, singers and composers, why Aix became such a haven for music. “The light,” she replied with a Mona Lisa smile.
“Cosi”, like most of the major opera productions here, takes place in the majestic Théâtre de L’Archevêché, a medieval courtyard turned amphitheater outside the former archbishop’s palace.
French film director Christophe Honoré daringly moves the setting of the opera from 18th century Naples to 1930’s Eritrea in East Africa, when it was still an Italian colony. This cracks the door open to allow in such incendiary issues as racism, rape, the subjugation and dehumanization of black Africans, even the shadow of Fascism.
Don Alfonso, sung by renowned American baritone and USC Thornton faculty member Rod Gilfry, is flanked by his friends as he plots to trick two young women into being unfaithful to their fiancés.
I know. A really big stretch. But somehow Mozart and Da Ponte’s sublime if cynical bedroom farce can accommodate all that added subtext, and more. Rather than sexual politics, Honoré serves up pure sex. I’m not even referring to the fairly graphic scenes that Tuesday night sparked a few angry shouts from the audience during the performance. The spectacular female leads—Dutch soprano Lenneke Ruiten as Fiordiligi and American mezzo Kate Lindsey as her sister Dorabella, exude sensuality. Brilliant actors as well as singers, they seem to be discovering the power of their own lust, their own bodies, before our very eyes. LA’s own Rod Gilfry, the renowned American baritone who teaches at the USC Thornton School of Music, makes a wonderfully rough-and-tumble Don Alfonso. It is he who sets the plot in motion by insisting the women’s fidelity be tested—he is convinced they will fail the test—by none other than their own disguised fiancés. That is, each other’s disguised fiancés. In this production, the disguises involve blackface—Ferrando and Guglielmo pretend to be black mercenaries (Da Ponte cast them as Albanians).
A festival official quietly opined that this version of the opera might not play well in the United States, where blackface, of course, is anathema, and racial tensions continue to grab front-page headlines. I wonder. Even with those jarring shouts from the audience, and a few boos during curtain calls, how refreshing to find the rarefied world of opera grappling with painful, messy, embarrassing, sometimes even horrifying issues of real life.
On a lighter than air note: The Act I trio, “Soave sia il vento” is music about which no words could ever suffice. British novelist Alexander McCall Smith admits to listening to the piece several times a day while he’s writing, recently telling NPR, “this exquisite example of Mozart’s genius is beyond compare.”
In this breathtaking music that somehow seems to float in thin air, the sisters bid the winds to be gentle and caressing as their lovers purportedly ship off to war. Just as the trio began on this particular sweltering summer night in Provence, a soft breeze offered its own caress of the audience. Pure Mozartean Magic.