Edinburgh festival offers refunds for controversial opera before opening

Christophe Honoré’s Così fan tutte has been described as a ‘provocative and sexually explicit’ adaptation Mozart’s opera

The Edinburgh international festival has been criticised for offering refunds for a new production of Così fan tutte before the opera has opened.

Christophe Honoré’s version of the Mozart opera opened the Aix-en-Provence festival in France last month and will play at the Festival theatre in the Scottish capital in late August.

The festival told ticket buyers in its description that it was a “provocative and sexually explicit take on Mozart’s opera” that “contains adult themes and nudity”.

However, festival organisers have now taken the unprecedented move of offering refunds to ticket holders, who have also been sent a copy of a New York Times review of the opera.

It outlines how Honoré has added a “volatile, violent racism” to the misogyny of the opera, which is set not in 18th century Naples but Eritrea in the late 1930s, when the east African country was still an Italian colony and Mussolini was in power in Rome.

In this version, the two men who try to test their lovers’ fidelity by disguising themselves do not pose as Albanians as per the libretto, but as the African mercenaries known as Dubats.

“Covered in blackface makeup, the men try to persuade their beloveds – sisters – to sleep with not merely strangers, but also black strangers, arousing their horror and also undercurrents of taboo desire,” writes Zachary Woolfe.

“Honoré’s staging is, for whites – that is, for almost everyone watching here – often a brutal, shaming experience, as the black Africans onstage are shoved, dragged, ground against and used as avatars, fantasies and objects, encountered as spurs for white imaginations rather than as people.”

The critic adds that the blackface makeup “becomes a potent theatrical device” and concludes that the production is a “dark, demanding staging that speaks all too clearly to our time”.

A spokesperson for the Edinburgh festival told the Scotsman: “We will normally provide as much information as possible about a show when tickets go on sale, but this is a brand new co-production with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. The fact is we didn’t know exactly what it was like until we saw its premiere in France last month.

“We don’t want to offend anyone. If somebody has bought a ticket, doesn’t think the show will be suitable for them and doesn’t want to come, then we will obviously try to help them.”

Ken Walton, the Scotsman’s opera critic, described the festival’s decision to offer refunds ahead of the opening as a panic measure.

“If you’re going to put on something controversial – which this must have been expected to be, given director Christophe Honoré’s reputation – then why not have the self-belief to see it through without apologising in advance?

“Reviews are out there, as is a video of the production, so anyone could ‘do their homework’ and judge for themselves,” he added. “I suppose the [festival] is guarding itself against potential kickback from those it will inevitably offend.”


Chris Johnston

The GuardianTramp

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