AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — A new production of “Così Fan Tutte” here doesn’t open with Mozart’s overture, its martial energy and tender longing. The first music we hear comes from a phonograph playing“The Gold in Africa,” a softly sinister 1936 calypso song about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.
“The gold, the gold, the gold in Africa, Mussolini want from the emperor,” the crackling recording chants. The audience watches two young black women slowly dance to the song in a shadowy city square that seems simultaneously ancient and modern, its high weathered walls weakly lit by fluorescent tubes. A third black person is motionless, strung up by the feet against a nearby building. Louis Langrée finally leads the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in the overture, more curt and unsentimental than usual, as a soldier rapes one of the dancing women in a corner.
Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto sets this classic opera in 18th-century Naples. The film director Christophe Honoré’s bitterly powerful staging, which opened this year’s Aix-en-Provence Festival on Thursday, has moved it to Eritrea in the late 1930s, when that East African country was still an Italian colony, and the Fascists ruled in Rome.
Mozart and Da Ponte’s gloomy comedy, in which two men test their lovers’ fidelity by disguising themselves and trying to seduce each other’s woman, is always a vicious (and, depending on your perspective, a viciously honest) look at sexual relations. But Mr. Honoré has added to the misogyny a volatile, violent racism. The opera’s pair of young officers dress up here not as the libretto’s Albanians 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. When Don Alfonso, who has organized the whole malicious game, tells the men that “until tomorrow you are both my slaves,” it has newly harsh resonance. “We have good feet, good eyes, good noses,” the disguised soldier Guglielmo sings to the sisters as Alfonso points at those parts of his body, evoking a certain kind of auction.
This “Così” is the latest offering from a festival that has been refreshingly reflective about interracial and international relations. When I was last here, in 2012, “Situation Huey P. Newton,” an enigmatic meditation on the legacy of the Black Panther movement, spilled from an auditorium through a park in the ethnically mixed neighborhood of Jas de Bouffan.
Speaking even more directly to Aix’s well-heeled audience, Mr. 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.
Rod Gilfry and Sandrine Piau as Alfonso and Despina. CreditPascal Victor/ArtComArt
Even so, there were moments in the first half when I wished Mr. Honoré had gone further, or at least not relented. If you’re going to open your staging with a rape, you really can’t let up on the tension in what follows.
But the farcically chaotic first-act finale is allowed to be its usual bubbly self, and the sublime trio “Soave sia il vento” to be simply, sincerely beautiful. In that number, the sisters beg the winds to be gentle as their lovers sail to war — the pretext for their deceit — so why didn’t we see Africans fanning them, making clear that breezes come from all kinds of sources? It wouldn’t have been subtle, but Mr. Honoré, known for films that owe a debt to the rambunctious audacity of the French New Wave, hardly shies away from blatant gestures elsewhere in the production.
His second act is more unsparing and harrowing, with seductions that take the form of surreal scenes tangling racial and sexual anxieties. As the sisters decide who will end up with which Dubat, a servant sponges their feet. Their duet becomes a spectacle of humiliation for him as they use him as a kind of mannequin, to try out gingerly the idea of loving — and having sex with — a black man. He gets in on the act, groping one of the sister’s breasts, until the intoxicating moment abruptly ends, and she shoos him away like an irritating insect.
The blackface makeup becomes a potent theatrical device. At one point, Ferrando washes some off himself, further confusing the frantic Fiordiligi, whom he is trying to seduce. This motivates a rendition of her aria “Per pietà” that, for both characters, simmers with mingled shames about racial passing and romantic betrayal. When she finally gives in, it’s part of an outpouring that finds her rubbing the makeup over her naked torso with a mixture of pleasure and pain: a shocking, wrenching image.
As the showiness of the first act yielded to the more serious, sustained intensity of the second, the cast was entirely on board with Mr. Honoré’s vision. Ending the opera alone onstage, pointing a rifle at herself, the soprano Lenneke Ruiten sang Fiordiligi with a fearlessly focused voice, a glint of stridency adding a note of urgency.
Kate Lindsey’s energetic, earthy mezzo suited the more impulsive sister, Dorabella, as Joel Prieto’s poised, airy tenor and Nahuel di Pierro’s smoky bass did the casually aggressive Ferrando and Guglielmo. Rod Gilfry was a gruffly nihilistic Alfonso, alternately resigned and snarling, and Sandrine Piau was sharply suspicious as Despina, the ladies’ guardian and Alfonso’s partner in crime.
There was no musical fat or plushiness here, as if the work had been shaved down to its sinews. In fact, it could have been even more sinewy: While the Freiburg ensemble played with crisp, light energy under Mr. Langrée, for a production this intense, more savagery in the sound might have been in order.
This conductor, orchestra and cast will present “Così” in concert at Alice Tully Hall on Aug. 15 as part of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. It will surely be an impressive performance. But the New York audience will miss a dark, demanding staging that speaks all too clearly to our time.