[The continued onslaught of racist, sexist and fascist imagery clearly calls for a group hug. – Kate Lindsey (
Dana Fairbanks Dorabella), Sandrine Piau (Despina) and Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) in the highly contested Christophe Honoré staging of Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”, Aix-en-Provence 2016.]
Last night’s liveblogging of the Aix “Così fan tutte” left me with very mixed feelings.
I have no experience with Honoré’s film work, nor have I spent time with this production’s press releases, so the following are opinions only informed by my viewing experience.
This “Così” opens to the image of a black man being dangled in torture upside down and shows, during the overture, Guglielmo as a fascist soldier raping a black woman (something repeated in Act II).
I would be the first one to welcome a darker take on “Così fan tutte”, as I keep complaining about cutesy and harmless productions that show neither the emotional, nor the social gray areas of the piece. But I am not sure that this very violent staging is the answer.
Yes, “Così” deals with imperialist, misogynist, classist and racist issues, as did European late 18th century societies in general. Yes, social consciousness has thankfully brought us to a point meanwhile where lines like the final “Ah, signor, io son rea di morte” of the sisters are simply not palatable anymore when left uncommented either musically, or scenically. But what happens when a production does take this underbelly and makes it the only focus of the staging?
Being more blunt about a thing does not necessary mean being more astute.
Is 1930s Italo-fascist Eritrea truly shedding light on the gender, class and race issues at play in “Così”?
There are some parts of the evening I commend: Looking at the sexualized treatment of the other as it intersects with gender and class in the first place. Having black people present (while the discourse within the libretto is more about the oriental “other”, to be precise – the disguise is called Albanian, and having the ‘other’ be interchangeable is another supremacist move), at nearly every moment, while addressing racism.
But still: what kind of an image is it then to have the black cast to the side, while centerstage, an all-white cast, directed by a white director, further purports the white privilege that is prevalent in the opera industry? Wouldn’t it be more proactive to cast a singer sextet that is partially made up of singers of color?
Importing the Cape Town Opera Chorus, commendable as it is, does not automatically make your production a critique of racism, nor does it make opera as a system less racist.
[Marginalization (silent side characters), Objectification (sexualized deshabille), Appropriation (blackface): have your pick. – Members of the Cape Town Opera Chorus/Actresses, Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi), Joel Prieto (Ferrando) in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”, Aix-en-Provence 2016]
Part of this staging feels like entitled fingerpointing: “Look! Your beloved Mozart was a racist! You are not supposed to enjoy him comfortably!” (which I don’t think any woman does when it comes to “Così fan tutte” – audiences aren’t that stupid).
Another, less annoying and more problematic part feels like “Look! These shocking horrors exist(ed)! Their mechanisms are even at work in “Così fan tutte”! And I want you to look at them!”
My problem with this is that this angle gives ample space to the continued visualization of violence against black people, against women, and doubly against black women. Is your critique of racist, misogynist violence still a critique when you offer the same images you claim to criticize in a way that feels at times awfully gratuitous?
[“Hold it right there!” – pretty much my reaction to much of this evening. And not in a ‘oh, my consciousness of race issues has been heightened’ way. – Member of the Cape Town Opera Chorus/Actress (I wish ARTE would have given the names), Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”, Aix-en-Provence 2016]
“Look! How horrible!” is not enough as a concept – I expect a commenting stance on that, at best an artistically mediated suggestion of how to change those patterns and further awareness of them without over-simplyfying matters in subjective righteousness. If you want to be explicitly political, *be* explicitly political.
If the aim is to rattle the viewers and make them uncomfortable: all right. But isn’t that a bit too small if you actually want to fuel a debate on racism (in “Così” and at large)? Debates need communicated stances.
I can respect a really dark “Così” – and there are elements and images of this staging that resonate in a thought-provoking manner – but I don’t want it to feel gratuitous in offering violent images without properly framing them in any way. This is likely different for the artists involved in this production who have had a say in developing this concept, and for whom I cannot speak. This is just my impression as a one-time viewer.
And I don’t mean only the two purposefully shocking rape scenes, where particularly the second one stages the objectified body of a black woman on a morgue cart of sorts. I also mean the smaller aspects of sexualizing Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Despina in their costumes (see-through shirts, silk stockings, off-shoulder dresses), in some of their actions, and with lingering body shots and cameras panning up and down their legs and torsos in a manner that is not overt or distanced enough to be a critique, and that felt icky to me. And I did not get a clear directing comment on that as e.g. in the 2006 Amsterdam “Don Giovanni” that openly addressed the issue of a sexualizing gaze.
For this post, I could easily have picked a dozen in themselves very appealing shots of Kate Lindsey in a sheer blouse in various states of suggestive lounging, even putting herself under a hose while singing (and not in the sexpositive “Flashdance” manner, either) and finally in bare midriff, or of a reclining Sandrine Piau in stockings or of a sweat-doused and disheveled Lenneke Ruiten in her underwear. But those are screencaps I won’t make or post. I try not to add to to the objectification of women. God knows there is enough of that out there already.
When you are a regular reader, you know that I will often forgo the head-arched-backwards-eyes-closed-and-only-wearing-underwear moments of a production in favor of poses that don’t make me a perpetrator of styling women as sexualized objects to leer at.
[Have a cup of something stronger, I have a feeling you might need it. Also, have a screencap that does not show Dorabella and Fiordiligi in a sexualized pose. – Kate Lindsey (Dorabella) and Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”, Aix-en-Provence 2016]
And, fine, let’s say we focus on the race aspects and problematic othering in “Così fan tutte”: It’s still an opera about desire, about youth, about seductability, about getting entangled in ideas of affection. All of this falls nearly entirely to the wayside in this production. If Guglielmo is shown as a racist, bigot rapist before he ever even sings a note and is thus rendered completely unsympathetic and unredeemable, how is his story in any way able to move me? How is it even a story, and not just a one-dimensional stereotype? And how is that not utterly more boring than it would be to allow Guglielmo some positive qualities, too, or reveal him bit by bit to be a jerk at heart?
[Possibly my favorite part of the evening: the facial expressions of Dorabella and Fiordiligi in the face of heteropatriarchist bullsh*t. Epic eyerolling! – Nahuel Di Pierro (Guglielmo), Kate Lindsey (Dorabella) and Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”, Aix-en-Provence 2016]
At the point where Guglielmo raped the same woman for the second time, in an even more brutal and exposed manner, I couldn’t come up with a reasoning any longer – the point was already made, why repeat it? (other than paralleling Fiordiligi making herself sexually available to Ferrando by choice in the scene just before that – but then, why in the overture, if not for sheer shock value?) And overall: why having the initial scene of torture and rape (of white men against black people) when then, for most of the evening, you have the black cast members sitting decoratively to the side, serving drinks, and being groped, manhandled and assaulted by the white singers? Again, it is the blurring line between critique and protracted visibility. – In case of Dorabella, Fiordiligi and Despina, it is a repeated pattern regarding the black men in a display of “Yes, white women profit from race privilege over black men! They treat them sexually with the derision that many men express towards women!” (again, in a way that stages black men as exotic boy candy – which I might concede as a conscious point of critique here – while at the same time the camera turned the white women into additional eye candy. Even Dorabella’s “È amor un ladroncello” came across mixed – yes, sexual awakening, perhaps, but at the same time objectifying Dorabella in her poses. And don’t even get me started on the “oh, she has decided to have an affair, so she will now make out with everyone, including a woman of color, since that is so edgy”.)
[Pretty much summing up my reaction at that point: Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”, Aix-en-Provence 2016]
The relentless pursuit of heavy social issues leaves no space of thought for the emotional journeys of any of the protagonists, safe for Fiordiligi. This is in part owed to the tremendous amount of dedication Lenneke Ruiten puts into her role portrayal, which is ultimately the only truly moving one. Another part, though, is the direction sacrificing all the other characters as villainous or more superficial to Fiordiligi to showcase her character growth. And to have this ‘one good woman’ isolated at the end, where she then reaches for the rifle and chooses suicide: that is dangerously close to the pseudo-socially conscious emo torture porn stance of Lars von Trier. Icky.
Also icky, particularly in regards to consent and rape culture, is Dorabella being seduced by Guglielmo: They barely look at each other, there is no connection, the duet is, as a result, oddly disjointed. And then – because Dorabella succumbed to Guglielmo – Guglielmo calls forward two local cronies (one black, one white) who then round in on a perturbed Dorabella and half-intimidate, half-seduce her into an implied foursome with very dubious consent. Since clearly, Dorabella asked for it by agreeing to cheat on Ferrando: if she is willing to sleep with one other man, surely also with three? Women with an interest in having a sex life clearly must be staged as ‘she had it coming’ promiscuous. (This remark was sarcastic. (Just making sure. The production does not make much use of ironic distancing)) Not that there is anything wrong with foursomes (if you have an ample enough surface) – as long as all parties do consent to it.
The single funny moment of the evening was Despina’s magnetic “Is There a Doctor In The House” performance:
[Walk Like An Egyptian: If Piau in aviators and a nun’s veil doesn’t brighten your mood, I don’t know what will. – Sandrine Piau (Despina) in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”, Aix-en-Provence 2016]
[Despina flying to the rescue! – Sandrine Piau (Despina) in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”, Aix-en-Provence 2016]
My musical highlights of the evening turned out to be – unsurprisingly – the Freiburger Barockorchester, displaying clarity, and great flexibility in the tempi: very fast and precise for some ensembles and aria codas, but with a long, languid Second Act rondo for Fiordiligi. The continuo group did not have as much chance to shine (Freiburger quality: if you wish for more recits just to hear the continuo group!), but in turn the woodwinds and brass stood out to me last night in some beautiful coloring far off the usual “Così” paths.
Then there was Sandrine Piau’s immensely classy Despina – perfectly balanced in tone (duh, it’s Piau), with a stage portrayal offering unobtrusive depth, and with astounding physical presence (try singing while maintaining your extended legs in a perpetuous sit-up! Is Sandrine Piau a Kryptonian?), providing some lighter moments, but also some heavier ones in being used as an example for the intersectionality of race, gender and class: Despina is brutalized in a different, more violent manner than the upper-class Dorabella and Fiordiligi. An interesting subplot was Despina, during her first aria, objectifying a black man, who later is shown as her lover – she then gets possessive when Dorabella advances on him – to finally Despina being shunned for being in an interracial relationship.
The most interesting aspect of the evening, as far as characters and chemistry go, is the connection between Fiordiligi and Ferrando, who are shown as falling for one another in earnest, even though Ferrando is ultimately not brave enough to defy convention and returns to a far more practical and abrasive Dorabella.
Here, Fiordiligi’s “Per pietà” is, in the second half, sung to the disguised Ferrando (Ferrando and Guglielmo in blackface is another issue, but since it is supposed to be a masquerade which the audience is aware of, I don’t find it offensive: it is not supposed to replace blackness, it is an act (that works well as a disguise) that is at all times witnessed by black people and at one point it is a black woman putting the paint on Ferrando.). Ferrando is so plagued by his guilty conscience that at first he refuses Fiordiligi’s offered kiss and then washes off the bodypaint and reveals himself to her as Ferrando.
Fiordiligi is mad, but the connection is already there and continues; in a push and pull, she gets paint onto her hands and puts it on her face, later, also on her body, as she tries to slip into the costume (and role) of a black woman with whom she swaps her dress.
[Not a foursome, but possibly a threesome between Fiordiligi (Lenneke Ruiten), Ferrando (Joel Prieto) and a can of bodypaint, in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”, Aix-en-Provence 2016.]
Fiordiligi listens in on the exchange between Guglielmo and Ferrando after her second aria and thus effectively knows about the bet, which changes the dynamic: She agrees to the mixed-up wedding with far more at stake for her, grapples with a guilty conscience and with jealousy towards Dorabella (whom she now knows to be having an affair with the man who is actually her own fiancé).
The seduction duet between Fiordiligi and Ferrando seems, despite its frank sexual poses, less gratuitous and at least in part a moment about a woman in charge of her sexual activities, as a source of pleasure instead of power or shame (yet again, this happens between two white or white/blackfaced characters – I would read it as a moment of moving beyond race or gendered power dynamics, but in the context of the production, that may be just wishful thinking).
[We are rondo-ing into a full-out Ruiten situation here: Even if you don’t want to watch this production in full, check out the Fiordiligi arias – in the ARTE Concert video, “Come Scoglio” starts as of 0:57:00, “Ei parte… / Per pietà” as of 2:01:40. – Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”, Aix-en-Provence 2016.]
So, finally, we have to talk about Lenneke Ruiten who is an outstanding Fiordiligi (in truth, I did not expect her to be this good): well in vocal command of the coloratura (unsurprising after her Aspasia and Giunia) and also the lyrical (daaaaamn that first drawn out “sempre ascoso”!) parts, yet with enough heft to deliver a wide range of color and emotion throughout.
She has noticeable, attractive differences between registers in delivery – merely the bottom, while she avoids pressure at large, is flatter and a bit more parsed. We talked about Ruiten and Lindsey last night (who sound very well together), and how Lindsey – reminiscent in that perhaps also of Isabel Leonard – sports the more readily interesting and appealing color and the smoother approach, but how Ruiten, whose material is grainier, achieves a greater variety of shades in how she works with her material, and I would add to it her diction that is very aware of the plasticity of the words. Just check out the recit preceding “Per pietà” and how it is not “oh, that thing that comes before the aria”, but the actual storytelling. The preference for light, even voices over differently colored, possibly not as smooth ones may also be a cultural thing; I only know that I am continuously drawn to something beyond mere smoothness. Not that Ruiten couldn’t do smooth, too: her piano control in the top register and her command over precise dynamic range and over the softness of a tone – “Per pietà” had moments between old-school messa di voce and a more romantic mezza voce that had a dreamy, floating quality without ever becoming detached from the emotionality of her approach – are remarkable. Despite having been impressed with her delivery in more coloratura-focused parts before, this aspect was new for me, and really made me sit up and take note.
Another point worth mentioning is Ruiten’s acting, which – again, if we look at last night’s direct comparison with Lindsey, who has a readily intense stage presence and works with bigger motions and poses – works a lot through small shifts and glances and small-scale angling of her body towards or away from a stage partner or an action. As a result, Ruitens’s portrayal of Fiordiligi feels very honest and unmediated and makes for an engaging and moving take (the Brussels Aspasia really didn’t do her justice in that department).
And even after last night’s mixed reaction to the production overall: what I got out of it was definitely a permanent seat in the Ruiten fan corner. In fact, I’m off to get me a ticket for her September TADW concert appearance right now (her overall schedule can be found here).
The Aix “Così” has finished its run, but the production can still be seen at the end of August at the Edinburgh festival and also continues to be available via ARTE Concert. If you have any opinions on it, I would be very interested in reading them in the comments.
Editing to add a PS, Feb 2nd, 2017: just out, a very insightful and thoughtful interview with Kate Lindsey by Mark Pullinger where she talks in detail about preparing and experiencing this production, very much worth a read.