Cosi Fan Tutte is one of Mozart’s greatest operas and contains the most sublime music, but it is over three hours long and can drag a little. However, this production of Cosi from the Festival d’Aix en Provence certainly doesn’t drag. It is exciting, at times disturbing, it is well sung and the orchestra is excellent. In short, it is brilliant.

Cosi was written by Mozart at the end of the eighteenth century and first performed in Vienna in 1790. It was the period of the Enlightenment, when traditional ideas based on religion were being challenged by philosophers, playwrights, and opera composers like Mozart. In Cosi the traditional bourgeois view of marriage and fidelity are challenged when two sisters Fiordiligi (Lenneke Ruiten) and Dorabella (Kate Lindsey) have their fidelity tested by Don Alfonso (Rod Gilfry) who plots, along with their fiancés Ferrando (Joel Prieto) and Guglielmo (Nahuel di Piero), aided by the sisters’ maid Despina (Sandrine Piau).

The original production had the two men pretending to go off to war but coming back disguised as Albanians to seduce their fiancées and to prove that all women are alike (Cosi Fan Tutte!) In 1790, Albania, like Turkey (also featured by Mozart in the Seraglio) was seen as the exotic east. In this production director, Christophe Honore has set the opera in Eritrea (then part of Ethiopia, occupied by Italian fascists under Mussolini). There is brutal racism, systematic misogyny, nudity and rape. Indeed, the Festival offered money back to opera-goers who didn’t want to be shocked. Indeed, there were significant blocks of empty seats in the stalls on the first night.

The question that opera-goers and critics are asking is: does this updating of the setting and the bringing out of more explicit issues of racism – the lovers come back disguised as black soldiers – and sexism enhance our understanding of the opera and its theme? I have been sceptical of much operatic updating, including the Festival’s Norma, but it works brilliantly here. The set – a seedy army barracks in Eritrea – is brilliant, the onstage business, particularly from the black company members from Cape Town Opera, is always interesting and sometimes shocking. The singing is very good overall and in particular the Despina of Sandrine Piau would grace the greatest opera companies anywhere.

Some feminist critics have suggested that by portraying the casual misogyny and racism in this production, it somehow confirms them. I think they are wrong. There was sexism and racism in the original production (the exotic Albanians) and this production certainly highlights it more, but not at the expense of the drama and the music. However, at times the production pushes a little too far. The two sisters gave the impression of being good time gals rather than bourgeois, high-born ladies as in Mozart’s original. The final scene where Fiordiligi threatens to shoot herself in regret certainly isn’t in the libretto.

Yet these are minor points in what is a very good production and as one opera goer said on leaving, “Festivals are meant to challenge us!” This Cosi certainly does that, but it is immensely rewarding both musically and dramatically.