When I received a warning about explicit content in this show, and learned that refunds were being offered to children, I assumed the staging must be seriously shocking. After all sex, nudity and violence are regular features of International Festival productions (the name Bieto springs to mind). So it was something of a surprise to find that, bar one moment at the very end, there is really nothing shocking about this production at all. Worse, it commits my cardinal sin of being emotionally cold. (As an aside, on a second closer reading of the e-mail in question it appears to me to go into more detail than would seem necessary just for an offer of refunds to "young people" and the thought does occur that the Festival may also have been seeking to stir up controversy in the hope of boosting sales).
Christophe Honoré has set the show in Italian occupied Eritrea during the 1930s. However, if the gramophone record which opens the show did not explicitly name check Mussolini, and the girls (bafflingly) post up his picture later on, this would not have been obvious. The general colonial setting is clearer but problematic, as will be discussed later.
The set, designed by Alban Ho Van, suffers from terrible geographical conclusion in Act One. A nondescript courtyard surrounded by concrete walls with two doorways, which sometimes connect through to the same place and sometimes don't, has to double, ineffectively as the girls house and whatever place the men are in at the outset. No attempt is made to distinguish between these two locations. The highlights are the girls hiding behind one shut door when it is perfectly obvious that the men could get at them in a few seconds by entering the other one (which they eventually do), and Despina's (Sandrine Piau) room which is bizarrely located in the middle of the street and involves Don Alfonso (Rod Gilfry) knocking at an invisible door. Why those lines of recitative were not just cut was beyond me. Things are marginally better in the second act, though it's still unclear where we are – certainly not in a garden, rather it seems to be some sort of kitchen-roof terrace with shower cubicle. The lighting, by Dominique Bruguiere seems to be going for gloom – from the Upper Circle faces are largely invisible until the final scene, and it's even difficult at times, particularly in Act One, to make out who is actually singing. Quite what purpose this was supposed to serve beyond confusion escaped me. Honoré also commits wearily familiar operatic directorial sins. There is a large cast of supernumeraries who wander about incessantly and ineffectively. The movement generates that question I too often find myself asking at operatic productions – yes, but why is X making that move at this precise moment? It is constantly baffling why people are allowing themselves to be sexually manhandled by other people (the fact it is nearly always a man doing the handling is also troubling) – there seem most of the time little reason why they've just wandered on stage and why they don't run off again instead of being abused – the set is not, after all, short of lines of retreat. Honoré also evidently thinks it is vital that people, usually those who aren't singing, should be doing things while the singing is going on otherwise the audience will get bored.
But the most serious failures are to do with the overall concept and an early directorial decision about character. Honoré appears to want to make a point about interracial relationships. Thus he makes the men disguise themselves in blackface and then, to pile it on in the second half, has Fiordiligi blacking up when she intends flight. If the overall environment created a genuine feeling that interracial sexual relations were transgressive and that serious consequences would follow then what follows between the four lovers could pack real emotional punch. But the environment completely fails to generate this. Virtually everybody on stage from the outset is groping everybody else – the idea has lost any possibility of frisson long before the moments in Act Two when touch should pack huge emotional weight. An instructive point of contrast might be The Scottsboro Boys which plays with the troubling nature of blackface to devastating effect.
Then there's Honoré's decision on character. In the opening scene we see Ferrando (Joel Prieto) and Guglielmo (Nahuel di Piero) passing the time happily in a brothel. In the next scene we see the ladies (Lenneke Ruiten's Fiordiligi and Kate Lindsey's Dorabella) happily ogling and flirting with a group of soldiers of mixed races outside what appears to be the same building who are busy with their ironing. The point is this, all four are established at the outset as pretty casual in their relations with the opposite sex. The result was that when the drama needed me to believe that the ladies were heartbroken at the departure of the men, or that they were tortured, at least in Fiordiligi's case, at the possibility of breaking faith, I was unable to do so. It seems to me that on a fundamental level, having played the opening scenes in this way, this is a production then hopelessly in conflict with the drama which follows. There is one moment at the very end suggestive of what might have been when it appears that a tortured Fiordiligi will shoot herself – the trouble is it is built on the sand of the rest of the show in terms of emotional journey, and it is a bit puzzling that the others just leave her to do this – presumably they can't see her owing to another of those invisible walls.
On the musical side, the soloists already mentioned are joined by the Cape Town Opera Chorus and the Freiburger Barockorchester under Jérémie Rhorer. Had the musical standards of the evening been comparable to those achieved in the Budapest Figaro last year, or had there been an individual vocal performance comparable to Golda Schultz's magnificent Countess at Glyndebourne earlier this summer, something might have been salvaged. But overall it is really a solid not an outstanding evening musically, though the soloists deserve credit for this given what they are being put through on stage. There were too many occasions when pit and stage were just fractionally out with each other, and neither ensemble nor individuals really manage to find in pure musical terms the range of emotion which the production denies.
This final staged work in Festival 2016 is a dismal end to what has been, from that point of view a largely disappointing year. At least in Act One I got some amusement out of the sillinesses of the production. Act Two simply left me alternately bored or irritated, and pretty completely unmoved. If you have been debating attendance, I would wait for the next Scottish Opera revival.